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Olive Ridley turtle deaths continue unabated

The endangered Olive Ridley turtles are battling for survival with at least 5,000 washed ashore dead in Orissa beaches over the last three months.
By Indo-Asian News Service | PTI, Bhubaneswar
PUBLISHED ON FEB 09, 2005 03:55 PM IST

The endangered Olive Ridley turtles are battling for survival with at least 5,000 washed ashore dead in Orissa beaches over the last three months and their eggs sold at Chennai shores as a delicacy.

Wildlife officials, however, said they have taken adequate steps to ensure low turtle mortality this season.

"We have deployed at least 30 wildlife officials and 40 non-official workers at Gahirmatha," Kendrapada district wildlife chief A.K. Jena told IANS.

The Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary is the world's largest turtle nesting site where 700,000-800,000 Olive Ridley turtles swim up every winter, heeding an internal clock to mate and nest.

In Gahirmatha alone some 500 turtles would have died, Jena said, adding: "We will try to minimise the casualties."

Wildlife conservation group Operation Kachhapa contested this, saying some 1,500 turtles had perished in Gahirmatha.

Apart from Gahirmatha, Orissa has two other nesting sites of Olive Ridley turtles - the Devi river mouth in Puri and the Rusikulya river mouth in Ganjam.

Said an Operation Kachhapa official: "Our survey found about 3,000 dead turtles near the Devi river beach and some near Rusikulya river beach."

Last year an estimated 7,500 dead Olive Ridleys were counted on the Orissa beaches. During the last 12 years, more than 120,000 dead turtles have been counted on the Orissa coast.

The turtles mate in November and December. After that, they congregate and come ashore for mass nesting in February or March, depending upon weather and beach conditions, the Operation Kachhapa official said.

The Orissa government has declared the entire nesting area a marine sanctuary and has banned mechanised trawlers, but the law is not being implemented.

Large numbers of turtles die when they get entangled in fishing nets and trawler crews are also known to use acid to blind the turtles trapped in their nets.

Olive Ridley, named for the olive colour of its heart-shaped shells, is the smallest of sea turtles, weighing 50 kg each and measuring about 60-70 centimetres. Their eggs are about four centimetres in diameter and each turtle lays about 110-120 eggs.

Rotting carcasses of female Olive Ridleys are seen in most of the beaches of the state except at the Rushikulya river mouth, where trawling is negligible, the Operation Kachhapa official said.

Many of the bodies were seen with eggs spilling out, indicating that the females were readying to come ashore to nest.

The abundance of dead turtles on the Puri beach invites pigs and dogs in the Penthakata fishing village to feast on the meat. The stench of Olive Ridley carcasses at Puri has led to protests by the tourists visiting the town, he said.

On Feb 1, a female Olive Ridley was found on the Bali Harichandi beach near Puri, 56 km from Bhubaneswar, with a severe head injury and a deep gash on the flippers. It could not swim due to the flipper injury and was pushed back by the waves when released in the sea, the official added.

The fishermen had hit the turtle on the head and cut its flippers to free it from their net.

Like tigers and elephants, the Olive Ridley is protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. However, not a single person has been convicted in Orissa though thousands of turtles are killed every year by illegal fishing, the official said.

Leading international wildlife conservation organisation Wild Foundation has threatened to raise the issue at the World Wilderness Congress in Alaska later this year.

In Chennai, the situation is less grim and riddled with commercial considerations.

The good news is that the Olive Ridley turtles are back for nesting on the Chennai shores while the bad news is that their eggs are being sold for a quick buck.

Also known as Arribada, meaning arrival in Spanish, Olive Ridleys were spotted in large numbers by the marine life enthusiasts who took a midnight walk on the Chennai shores last weekend to spot these turtles.

"The tsunami did not affect the nesting of Olive Ridleys," said Kundhavi Devi, an education officer with the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust which organises such walks between November and March.

"In the post-tsunami period, there is an increase in the number of Olive Ridley nests and a decrease in their death rate as compared to last year," she said.

The trekkers traversed the secluded stretch of shore between Chennai's Besant Nagar and Neelangarai, a small village on the East Coast Road, said I. Subramaiam, a volunteer of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust.

Last year a total of 41 nests were sighted between January and March, but this year at the beginning of the peak season of nesting, at least 17 nests were spotted, he said.

The nesting season of Olive Ridleys coincides with an attendant cottage industry that makes a livelihood on the eggs.

Said egg-seller Yaddamma: "I was told these eggs have nutrition value. So I started collecting and selling them."

Chennai wildlife warden K.S.S.V.P Reddy clarified that the collection and sale of the turtle's eggs is illegal. The public and NGOs have been asked to inform the wildlife authorities about the egg-sellers, he said.

The wildlife department has formed a team to comb the beaches for nesting sites of Olive Ridley turtles so as to protect them.

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