Meet the ‘barefoot ecologists’ behind return of Olive Ridleys to Odisha’s beach
Youngsters who patrol the murky shoreline into wee hours of the night, a women’s self help group which protects the mushy hatchlings, and a resolute 36-year-old man who has vowed to never marry to serve the ‘second avatar of Lord Vishnu’ - these are the pieces of an untold story behind the resurgence of the thousands of Olive Ridley sea turtles to the golden sand beaches of Odisha.
Olive Ridley turtles, which grow up to two feet in length and have a characteristic heart shaped olive green shell, are a species known for a participating in Arribada - or ‘the arrival’ in Spanish - which depicts the mass nesting phenomenon that witnesses thousands of turtles coming to the same beach to lay their eggs every year. While females of most species are known to guard their eggs, the Olive Ridley is not so protective of its hatchlings. The mothers dig a pit in the sand, lay their eggs and cover it up before heading back to the sea, leaving the little ones to fend for themselves.
The eggs are considered a delicacy by humans and are a source of food for dogs. Once hatched, the offspring are often attacked by wild boars, kites, crows and hyenas. Only one in thousand hatchlings makes it to adulthood. These factors have earned the Olive Ridley species a place in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List. It is currently listed as a Vulnerable species.
Bichitranal Biswal, fondly called Bichi and hailed by his friends as the “Turtle Man of India”, was in eighth standard when he first saw hundreds of dead turtles on the beach and alerted the media about 17 years ago. “I warned the local fishermen, that if things continued the same way, there would be no fish left for us to catch by 2030,” Bichi said. He has vowed not to marry, and dedicated his life to protect the turtles, which he equates with the God Vishnu. “They are the avatar of Vishnu. They are my wife, my children and everything,” said the 36 year old, who recently suffered a paralysis attack which left him bedridden. However, his determination to return to his mission helped him get back on his feet within a span of four months.
Olive Ridley Turtles feed on jellyfish, a natural predator of smaller fishes. If the number of the turtles decline, there would be lesser fish to catch - affecting the livelihood of hundreds of fishermen and their families. In accordance with the provisions of the Orissa Marine Fishing Regulation Act (OMFRA), 1982 and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, sea fishing is restricted along the stretch of Dhamra-Devi-Rushikulya river mouth for a period of seven to eight months every year. While it helps reduce turtle casualties, it fuels animosity against the animals in the minds of the locals, whose livelihoods are severely affected. That is where the Action for Protection of Wild Animals (APOWA) factors in. Based in the Kendrapara district of Odisha, APOWA has worked for years to change the attitude of the local communities towards the turtles.
“Every year in January we train volunteers on how to relocate vulnerable turtle nests in artificial hatcheries,” said Bijay Kumar Kabir, director of APOWA. Trained volunteers identify vulnerable nests - which are too close to the water and risk being washed away - and relocate them to hatcheries built by the Humane Society International (HSI) India, an NGO that supports APOWA’s initiative, and the Odisha Forest Department. The eggs hatch within 45-50 days after which the hatchlings are placed back on the beach, from where they have to walk into the sea. “This short journey to the water is very important because the beach gets imprinted on the turtles,” said Sumanth Bindumadhav, a wildlife expert with HSI India. “They use their memory of the beach to travel back to it when it is time for them to lay their eggs,” he said. The entire conservation effort requires time and immense effort on the part of the locals or the “barefoot ecologists”, as Bindumadhav calls them.
However, it does not provide any direct or immediate benefit to them, apart from the aids provided by the NGOs. In a remote village of Siali, APOWA has helped women organise themselves into a self help group. They have been trained to work with sewing machines, make and sell pickles and other edible items that would help them earn during the lean months. Mrinalini Pal, a 50-year-old Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), said that the turtles are no different than their own children. “Just like we name our kids, we give names to the turtles knowing that they will be coming back to our beach someday,” said Pal.
The locals at Siali believe that presence of turtles have a link to occurrence of cyclones. According to the Forest Department records, there had been no Olive Ridley turtle sightings in the two years preceding the 1999 Odisha cyclone, which is claimed thousands of lives. “There is no scientific evidence to back the theory that turtles and cyclones are linked, but it is what the locals believe, and that helps our conservation efforts,” said Bindumadhav. Somyaranjan Biswal, a 21-year-old college student, is among a group of youngsters who patrol beaches all night to spot turtles and their nests. Asked why Biswal cares about conserving these turtles, he simply replied, “It’s in our DNA.”
In places where the interest of the animals and humans conflict, laws, bans and government funding can only provide so much help without the cooperation of the locals, said Bindumadhav. “People like Bichi have assisted in more research studies than we can imagine. However, they end up being nothing more than footnotes in the published papers,” said Bindumadhav. “My work here may earn me a PhD someday, but that would do nothing for the turtles. These barefoot ecologists are backbone of India’s wildlife conservation efforts,” he said.
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