Meet the home-grown guardians of Odisha’s Olive Ridley turtles

  • Rachel Lopez, Hindustan Timess
  • Updated: Mar 20, 2016 11:42 IST
Olive Ridley turtles return year after year to nest on Odisha’s beaches. (Photo: Rabindranath Sahu)

It’s a bright, breezy February morning and we’re getting into a fishing boat to try to spot some Olive Ridley sea turtles. Fifteen minutes later, just one kilometre off the coast of the Rushikulya area in south-east Odisha, there’s no need to try – they’re everywhere. They swim, hundreds of them in every direction, in the green waters – some pass right by our boat – and bob their heads up occasionally for air before disappearing quietly under the surface.

The turtles are here on very important business. A few weeks ago, they swam here from miles away to mate. And by the time you read this, the females will be making their way, in astonishing numbers, to lay their eggs by moonlight in the sands ahead. They didn’t pick Odisha at random. They’ve been doing this for millennia – returning to the same coast where they were hatched, this time to bury as many as 150 soft-shelled eggs each, so 45 days later, little hatchlings can emerge, paddle automatically towards their ocean home and return to do the same one day.

It’s a journey fraught with risk, as you’ll see. Of 1,000 eggs, only one Olive Ridley turtle is said to make it to adulthood. But as the rising turtle numbers at Rushikulya in the last two years show, that might slowly be changing. A new generation of locals in Rushikulya’s fishing villages of Purnabandha, Gokurkuda and Podampeta, who’ve grown up with messages of conservation, is taking charge of reptilian guest relations. They’re battling tradition, collaborating with experts, stretching budgets creatively and relying on good-old-fashioned grit so that Odisha, the world’s single most important breeding area for Olive Ridleys, can protect its precious visitors.

This is their story-

Turtles return to sea after nesting at Rushikulya (Biswaranjan Rout)

Swept Away

It wasn’t always like this. In the 1970s, when scientists discovered the coast of Gahirmatha, a few districts north of Rushikulya, to be a rich nesting ground for Olive Ridley turtles, it was already time to worry. Turtles would arrive in thousands to nest, but only a few of their eggs would get to hatch, let alone make it to the ocean. Locals would dig them out of their sand pits to eat or use as cattle feed.

“We knew that the turtles had been coming here every year, but we didn’t know anything else,” recalls Rabhindranath Sahu, now past 40, who grew up in Purnabandha. “We’d collect the eggs to eat and sell. They seemed like ping-pong balls, only softer.” They didn’t taste particularly good. “Only the yolk cooks,” he explains. “The rest stays liquid. We’d cook them in haldi-mirchi; it smelled awful. But when a hen’s egg was 50 paise and you could find 100 free turtle eggs, people weren’t picky.”

Adult turtles weren’t spared either. In his 2015 book From Soup To Superstar, researcher Kartik Shanker describes how until the early 1980s, “thousands of adult Ridley turtles were shipped from the ports of Odisha to the pans of Kolkata by both road and rail”. Mangaraj Panda, another local, recalls seeing them as a schoolboy at Puri station, bound for Howrah. “My fishermen friends would sell them,” he says. Fishing communities, viewing turtles as an avatar of Vishnu, would not eat them. But if some, even hundreds, washed up dead after being caught in trawler nets, no one cared.

Magazines reported on the turtle numbers. Wildlife conservationists pushed to ban poaching. But in the fishing villages, laws were of little help. “In those days we’d never even see a car here, we had one landline for 300 people – it was that remote,” recounts Sahu.

(Biswaranjan Rout)

Turning The Tide

In Rushikulya, change came when a strange man visited the village in 1993. “He stayed among us, explained he was there to track and study our turtles, and told us things about them that none of us knew,” Sahu says. The man, wildlife scientist Bivash Pandav, was 13-year-old Sahu’s first brush with a world outside his fishing and salt farming community. He accompanied the scholar on a study trip of the neighbouring beach and, as luck would have it, they struck gold. “We counted 30,000 Olive Ridleys on the sand that night. It was like a mela!” Sahu recalls. “I knew there was something special about where I lived. Since then my life has been connected to turtles.”

Sahu describes much of the next four years as “din mein padhai, raat mein beach,” referring to his research work with Pandav. They’d rent a dinghy and travel 20km along the coast, tracking turtles. Sahu learned the value of turtle tallies, counting nests, analysing the weather, and tracking mating and mortality. “People would ask me, ‘Kaam dhanda nahi hai?’” But for Sahu, the projects offered friendship and purpose.

Read: DRDO to facilitate live webcast of Olive Ridley sea turtle nesting in Odisha

It also made him see his own village differently. “I’d be doing all this work to save turtles and I’d see my people eating their eggs. I’d fight with them every day,” he says.

As more scientists and conservationists dropped in with pamphlets, videos and slideshows to educate the residents about the marine wealth in their backyard, Sahu patrolled the coast, keeping the villagers away from the eggs. “It took six years,” he says with a sigh. “But people stopped poaching eggs. More hatchlings began going to sea.”

The Rushikulya turtles started to gain worldwide attention, and Sahu found himself in the spotlight. “I ended up on Doordarshan,” Sahu recalls. “I think that’s the point at which people began to respect me, and see their beach the way I saw it... as a special place.”

Kids guide wayward babies home on the beaches of Orissa (Biswaranjan Rout)

It Takes A Village

On other parts of the coast, the revolution was set to music. When Operation Kachhapa was set up in 1998 to help reduce trawler-related turtle deaths, it focused on hardcore activities like patrolling no-fishing zones and taking legal action on violations. But it also spread the conservation message among common people. A special turtle song was written in Odia, set to a catchy tune, and performed in over 100 villages (including Rushikulya and another major nesting site in Puri) by two minstrels. The song spoke of the turtle being Odisha’s pride, its role in the marine ecosystem, and how it needed to be protected from nets and indiscriminate consumption. The chorus: If turtles survive, we survive! The performance came with stunning visual aids – hand-painted scrolls depicting live nesting turtles, dead turtles set against trawlers, and Lord Vishu in his incarnation as a turtle. Everywhere the minstrels went, they were met with curiosity and questions.

By the turn of the century, community-based conservation had blossomed. “I used to be anti-turtle till the year 2000,” admits Mangaraj Panda. “I’d think that saving turtles came at the cost of fishermen.” It took a scientific study to convince him (and many others) that turtles, which fed on jellyfish, were actually keeping sea fish safe. “I realised that turtle numbers were good for our livelihoods.” His organisation, Odisha Marine Resources Conservation Consortium was set up in 2004 so fishworkers, scientists, conservationists and non-profits can “speak as one voice” on coastal issues. They encourage small fishermen to stay away from turtle congregation sites during mating and nesting season, and have turned the Olive Ridley from foe to friend.

Rabindranath Sahu grew up studying the Olive Ridleys with visiting researchers and now works to protect them. The locals have lined the beaches with nets to prevent misguided turtles from wandering too far from the ocean (Biswaranjan Rout)

Green Lanterns

Today, as the area’s turtle guests number almost three lakh, Sahu’s job is actually easier. He’s the secretary of the Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee, founded by Pandav and local youth in 1998, and the 40-odd volunteers have been raised to take pride in Podampeta’s global status as ‘Turtle Village’. “They know their responsibilities as soon as I visit their neighbourhood,” he says. For ten years, they’ve cleared away old nets and debris before turtles reach the sands, reminded fishermen to stay away and scanned the beach for the first sporadic nesters. “Early batches get eaten by dogs and crows,” says N Yudhishtra. So the eggs are dug up and re-nested in a goalpost-like enclosure close by, with labels neatly indicating when they are expected to hatch.

At full-on nesting time, when thousands of Olive Ridleys can make their way to a beach on a single night, Sahu says he has “no time to even go back for a meal”. The coast is constantly monitored – no mean feat with 54km of beach and close to three lakh nests – and tourists are corralled. Beaches are kept dark so nothing interferes with a turtle’s moonlight mission. “There are hundreds of cars and bikes,” says G Damburu. “We can’t have that light reaching the sea, so we’re building a parking lot further away.” After the 50-day hatching period, all hell breaks loose. As many as 140 baby turtles emerge from a single nest, the tiny grey hatchlings possessed by a singular urge to scramble out to sea.

Much can go wrong at this point. Hatchlings are vulnerable to dogs, birds and crabs so more volunteers are roped in to keep them safe. Haloes of light from the roads, fish farms and villages are especially dangerous. They disorient the newborns into thinking they’ve found the horizon, making them crawl in the opposite direction. “They’d all end up in the bushes,” Sahu recalls. “We’d be up all night, with eight-to-12-year-olds as volunteers, collecting them in buckets and bringing them to the sea.” Rescue numbers were dismal, until in 2000, one fisherman, Damburu Behera, hit upon an idea: setting up a length of nets along the edge of the beach to stop the misguided ones. “It was the first of its kind in the world,” Sahu says. “It was low-cost and made work so easy that the forest department adopted it for other beaches.”

A pair of Olive Ridley Turtle mate inside the Bay of Bengal Sea just off coast of the Rushikulya River mouth (Biswaranjan Rout)

Many Happy Returns

Sea turtles are great ambassadors for conservation. They’re easy to approach (try getting close to an adult tiger or a panda), are found across continents (unlike a tiger or a panda) and are the subject of research and conservation programmes in over 70 countries. Marine biologists suggest they’ve been around for 200 million years, making them older than dinosaurs. “But they’re quite solitary and spend so much of their lives at sea that you wonder why they take these incredible migrations and return to the same place,” says Shanker. “They remain a mystery.”

In addition, Olive Ridleys live to 50 years. Biologists worry that we won’t know if our well-intentioned measures have worked until much later. Much of our actions over the last century are already affecting the turtles. Rising sea levels are eroding the beaches the turtles once knew. “One island in Gahirmatha has shrunk from 4km to less than a kilometre,” claims Sahu. Climate change is resulting in longer hatching periods – they now take nearly 55 days – and resulting in all-female hatchlings. Oil spills are an ever-present threat. In 2010, some 7,000 litres of oil spilled from a ship at nearby Gopalpur port and blackened Rushikulya sands during hatching season. “There was zero hatching that year,” Sahu says.

Perhaps the encouraging numbers of turtles nesting in Rushikulya show what we’ve done right. Panda believes only good has come from winning over women, locals and young people: “The women have influenced their husbands and sons positively, the locals have worked out what is sustainable for them, youth ensure that efforts continue.” At the beaches, Sahu knows that celebrating “Turtle ka birthday” on World Turtle Day (May 23), awarding chocolate and toys to kids who’ve helped hatchlings keeps them motivated.

Sahu himself has emerged as ‘Turtle Rabi’, Rushikulya’s go-to Ridley expert. Researchers joke that he knows the ecosystem so well that the turtles don’t come to nest unless he says so. He fields queries from the navy, fisheries, forest department, coast guard, biologists and tourists, and networks with researchers in 50 countries. “No job would have given me opportunities like these,” he says. “I am nothing without the turtles. I don’t even want a wife – the lakhs of Olive Ridleys are my children. You can hurt a man before me, but if you hurt a turtle… nahi chhodoonga!”

(Biswaranjan Rout)

What makes Olive Ridley Turtles so special?

Of the seven species of sea turtles, Olive Ridleys are the most abundant, but they’re still almost endangered. Odisha is their richest nesting site, though they also appear along India’s west and east coasts, Mexico and Costa Rica. They grow up to two feet in length and live for 50 years, but given that they are solitary and spend their lives in the open ocean, we know little about them. Here’s the part we’re familiar with:

* Turtles swim from thousands of miles away to mate offshore in the cooler months

* By March, mother turtles head to the beach to lay about 150 eggs, cover their nests and return

* Eggs hatch 40 to 60 days later, and baby turtles emerge, with no mum in sight, with enough will and energy to paddle to the sea

* The lost years begin as the babies drift with the currents, settling close to shore and taking almost 30 years to reach adulthood

* Tagging experiments show that females return to the beach they were born to lay eggs of their own. In Rushikulya, as many as three lakh turtles now come to nest annually

From HT Brunch, March 20, 2016

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