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Did Olive Ridleys hatch at Mumbai beach? Turtle tale faces test

For the first time in 20 years, at least 80 baby Olive Ridley turtles were spotted at Versova beach on Thursday morning, making their way to the sea.

mumbai Updated: Mar 23, 2018 07:13 IST
Badri Chatterjee
At least 80 healthy baby turtles were spotted on Versova beach on Thursday morning.
At least 80 healthy baby turtles were spotted on Versova beach on Thursday morning.(Photo: Afroz Shah)

Soon after local residents filmed baby Olive Ridley turtles on the Versova beach on Thursday morning, the mangrove cell of the forest department said it will launch a probe to find out if the vulnerable reptiles hatched there or were brought from another site.

A complaint was filed by city-based NGO Vanashakti late at night with the state mangrove cell to verify claims of turtle nesting at Versova. “This is to request you to investigate the truth in the case of turtle hatchlings seen in large numbers at Versova beach... If turtles have been brought from another site and released here, it would qualify as an offence under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972,” read the complaint filed by Stalin D, director of Vanashakti.

Morning walkers and beach clean-up crusaders were pleasantly surprised when they went to Versova beach and spotted newly hatched Olive Ridley turtles waddling into the sea. The hatchlings were first spotted by beach clean-up crusader Afroz Shah and his team around 9.30 am near Sagar Kutir Wadi after hatching 30-35 metres away from the sea. By afternoon, the news had taken the social media by storm.

Witnesses said around 80 hatchlings emerged from a three-foot-deep pit. However, city-based ornithologist and naturalist writer Sunjoy Monga and animal welfare officers were skeptical about the discovery because they could not find any egg shells.

“I would be overjoyed if this has indeed occurred, on World Water Day, no less. As soon as I got the news in the afternoon, I rushed to the site. I saw a square pit, several feet at the sides and about three feet deep, one amongst many dug by some local people who cultivate methi (fenugreek) on the beach edge,” said Monga. “Not anything quite like a typical turtle nest-pit. I searched thoroughly and even probed the site but wondered why there were absolutely no egg shells if as many as 80 hatchlings were there (as reported). It would have otherwise been very obvious, in the pit and around, especially since the high tide hadn’t come to that level. The site, by itself, is marginally higher than the beach for the shells to be washed away.”

Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) volunteer Ankit Vyas said he and other residents rescued seven of the same Olive Ridley hatchlings from the homes of fenugreek farmers at Sagar-Kutir, Versova. “I will be informing the WCCB western region about this incident because, apparently, many local residents have the same species at their homes. They might have picked them up when they were in the pit. It is also unclear where the egg shells went because not a single one was visible along the entire beach,” he added.

Around 10 pm on Thursday, city-based NGO Vanashakti asked the state mangrove cell to verify claims of turtle nesting at the beach. “We request you to investigate the truth in the case of turtle hatchlings seen in large numbers at Versova beach. The beach is subject to daily cleanups and human activity. Why did nobody see even a single turtle come ashore to lay eggs? Further, the beach is well-lit, making it unlikely that adult turtles would choose the site for nesting. As we feel there is more to this than meets the eye, we request you to order an investigation into the matter. If turtles have been brought from another site and released here, it would qualify as an offence under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. If there is evidence of nesting, we should take steps to protect the area. Kindly look for more eggs that are yet to hatch or other evidence (of the kind),” a complaint filed by Vanashakti director Stalin D read.

State mangrove cell officials said they will be examining the authenticity of the event. “It is an amazing thing that has happened in Mumbai. Turtles usually come back to the same spot for laying eggs even after years. (This turtle) must have been born 15-20 years ago and had now returned to lay eggs because it found a suitable environment. However, several theories regarding the authenticity of the event are floating around, and we will examine them on the basis of circumstantial evidence to zero in on the facts,” said N Vasudevan, additional principal chief conservator of forest, state mangrove cell. “While there might be strong evidence towards the contrary, one has to go by the theory that the nesting has started after a long gap.”

Meanwhile, Shah and forest officials who first spotted the turtles said they had seen egg shells too. “It was a delightful sight to see our cleanup efforts bearing fruits as turtles have made their home at Versova beach, probably the only one in Mumbai where they are currently present,” said Shah. “The shells were very small and I saw them. The shells might have got mixed with the sand as the turtles were making their way to the sea, or maybe they got buried as they were coming out.”

He said there might be many other nesting sites in the vicinity. “We have begun combing operations in these areas to ensure that the turtles do not face any problems reaching the sea after hatching,” said Shah.

Over 126 weeks, Shah and other members of the Versova Residents Volunteers have removed 13 million kg of plastic, filth and garbage. They carried out over 200 beach cleanups, sensitised local residents, and moved the state machinery to help them in their efforts. The United Nations termed their movement as the ‘world’s largest beach cleanup’.

“We have appointed a team of 12 forest officers and restricted entry to this site. The presence of more nesting sites cannot be ruled out. We will be pushing for the development of a turtle rescue centre less than a few metres from this site,” said Prashant Deshmukh, range forest officer (western region) of the state mangrove cell’s Mumbai conservation unit.

Photos: A unique bond between Olive ridley turtles and Odisha fishermen

Olive Ridley turtles are found in the warm tropical currents of the Indian and Pacific oceans. An endangered species of marine turtles, they travel thousands of kilometres into the ocean. The females return to their original breeding sites within two years.

Marine experts said this was the first time in two decades that Olive Ridley turtles reportedly hatched on a Mumbai beach. Shaunak Modi of the Marine Life of Mumbai, a group promoting marine life welfare in the city, said: “We counted 80 individuals, saw that they were healthy, and removed all obstacles in their path as they moved towards the sea. We kept birds and dogs away from the site. All the 80 successfully entered the sea.”

“There were reports of turtle nesting near the private beach at the governor’s bungalow, but we have never heard of something like this along Versova beach. This is a historical event for Mumbai, and citizens like Afroz Shah should pride themselves at having made the beach clean enough to harbour turtles,” said Vinay Deshmukh, marine biologist and former chief scientist, Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute.