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Olive Ridley turtles calling...

It's that time of the year again when nature lovers wait with bated breath for the heavenly spectacle of mass nesting of Olive Ridley turtles in Orissa, writes Santosh Kumar Biswal.

india Updated: Jan 03, 2009 17:26 IST
Santosh Kumar Biswal
Santosh Kumar Biswal
Hindustan Times

The lives of innocent Olive Ridley turtles are no more secure. They have to pay the price no less their lives for the greedy and unscrupulous fishing traders. The heinous occurrence of killing these turtles by trawlers on the beaches continues despite repeated unrest in various quarters of the country. It's that time of the year again when nature lovers wait with bated breath for the heavenly spectacle of mass nesting of endangered Olive Ridley turtles to unfold on the beaches of the eastern Indian state of Orissa. This has brewed several questions regarding the safety measures for these hapless turtles.

Orissa High Court has asked the Orissa government to submit a fresh report on the actions taken by it to protect endangered Olive Ridley turtles in the state. As per norms, Olive Ridley turtles are endangered and protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Trapping or killing an Olive Ridley turtle can lead to imprisonment for seven years. It is noted here that in April 2004, the Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee, had recommended that the Dhamra Port be relocated.

Orissa, known the world over as the biggest nesting site for Olive Ridley turtles, has three mass nesting sites - Nasi Islands in Kendrapada district (Gahirmatha Beach), mouth of Devi River in Puri district and mouth of Rushikulya River in Ganjam district. Conservationists from across the world have been petitioning the Indian and state governments to protect the turtles.

The Gahirmatha beach in Orissa is the biggest nesting site of these turtles in the world. Nearly 50,000 Olive Ridley turtles crawl up the beach every year between October and February. Soon the entire area crawls with adult turtles laying eggs in their sandy nests. The turtles arrive in the Orissa waters after traversing long distances in October, the beginning of their breeding season, every year. The sea turtles migrate thousands of kilometres to meet both the ends. It has been noticed that Olive Ridley sea turtles migrate from the coastal water of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean to the coastal water of Gahirmatha in the north.
Mating immediately after the arrival of Ridley sea turtles in the coastal water of Gahirmatha, they indulge in matting activities. They have their first mass nesting between January and March, followed by another nesting spell of lesser intensity 30 to 45 days later.

Uncontrolled Fishing:
While mass nesting is a joy to watch, the celebrations have been muted for the last few years. Large-scale killing of Olive Ridley turtles has been casting a gloomy shadow on the beaches.

According to one society spearheading for the campaigning against the killing of turtles, revealed on the condition of anonymity, at least 1,300,000 turtles have been killed in Orissa in the past 14 years, 5,753 of them during the last two months of 2006 alone because of mechanized fishing boats and trawlers.

With turtle casualties increasing, a concerned government declared 20 kilometers of sea off the Gahirmatha coast a marine sanctuary since 1997, banning fishing in the area. This ban on fishing is applicable throughout the whole year. It has been extended to the mouths of the Devi and Rishikulya rivers, the two other turtle nesting sites in the state, but only for seven months (from November to May) each year. The ban, however, has little impacts on some unscrupulous elements. The government has even failed to enforce its own orders with regard to the use of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) by the fishing vessels which have defied the laws with impunity.

Environmentalists allege that fishing vessels are getting away with the violation of law because law keepers happen to be hand and glove with the owners of fishing trawlers. Notably, there have also been several instances of fishing vessels from neighbouring Indian states like West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh entering Orissa waters and fishing in the prohibited zone. Well-armed, the crews of these trawlers often behave like high sea pirates, opening fire on any vessel that chases them. Government boats patrolling the sea are usually scared of intercepting the rogue fishing trawlers. This further exerts a heavy toll on the fragile turtles.

There is a high demand of turtles' flesh in the markets of Kolkata, the capital city of West Bengal and one of the biggest metropolises of India. This illegal trade continues despite some seizures and arrests made by the authorities in the past.

Obstacles and Predators:
With thousands of turtles being killed by dogs every year, the government has now decided to check the growing stray dog population on the Gahirmatha beach.

"In an attempt to save turtles, the government has decided to join hands with Blue Cross, an animal rights protection group, and the central animal welfare board to start the drive to castrate dogs roaming the Gahirmatha beach", an official sources said.

Endangered Species and Conservation:
The latest and most innovative way to conserve the Olive Ridley turtle is the move to fit satellite transmitter collars on at least 70 of them to keep track of their movements along the Orissa coastline. In order to have surveillance at the strategic points during the turtles' nesting season, the wildlife wing of the government has set up several observation camps, manned by forest and wildlife department officials. They are equipped with walkie- talkies and speed boats to track illegal vessels found violating the fishing restrictions. Taking stock of the situation, environmentalists appear seriously concerned over the issue. The adverse conditions may force Olive Ridley turtles to shun Gahirmatha as a nesting site.

It is matter of regret that in 1997 and 1998, these turtles did not turn up on the beach for nesting attributing to the unfavourable conditions for their arrival. They resumed mass nesting at Gahirmatha again once the conditions were back to normal.

However, the continued unabated massacre of Olive Ridley turtles on the Orissa coast runs the risk of changing the mass nesting forever. The danger extends beyond Gahirmatha to nesting sites like the Devi and Rishukulya river mouths. They all run the risk of losing the right to host these beautiful marine creatures during their nesting season. The state must take immediate steps to make Orissa coast safer for the endangered Olive Ridleys. Otherwise, these turtles might soon find a better home and leave the beaches there for good.

First Published: Jan 03, 2009 17:18 IST