Fettered flippers along the Orissa coast
If this State is the Olive Ridley's largest nesting ground, it is also its biggest graveyard.
RELENTLESS THREATS FROM MAN: The Olive Ridley turtle. PHOTO: S.R. RAGHUNATHAN
A FEW hundred kilometres from Bhubaneswar is Bhitarkanika the world's last remaining mass-nesting site of Olive Ridley Turtles. I primarily went to see the famed Olive Ridleys that cross oceans to nest in the small stretch of sand that Kendrapada and Bhadrak have to offer. Last year, over one million turtles came to Orissa's shores to dig sand pits and lay eggs, the largest concentration being at the Gahirmatha beach. In 1997, 1998 and 2002, the turtles skipped the annual ritual and there was no mass nesting at all. Though the Forest Officials said the nesting patterns couldn't be predicted this year (my ill-timed trip was in February), I remained optimistic.
The ride there was incredibly long ... but was incredible nevertheless. You snake your way through mangroves where trees stand tiptoe on their roots to avoid sucking up much brackish water. Estuarine crocodiles and brilliantly coloured kingfishers dotted the clay banks on either side of the water. And when we finally got there, the beach was something out of a picture postcard that Orissa does not find necessary to print. Black sand mixed with white to form zebra striped mini-sand dunes that made me curse myself as I stomped on the ripples with my monstrous sports sandals. The water was a shade of obnoxious blue that gave the sky a run for its money.
And when I scanned the sand on either side of me, I was delighted with the shiny black dots that looked like oversized carpenter hats. When I walked closer, the dots were remarkably still, not moving even a centimetre as I tried not to disturb them. Turtles, I've heard, are very sensitive creatures. I moved slowly, pretending like I was out for a pleasant stroll, not an incognito camera-wielding voyeur. But my efforts, it turned out, were in vain. Because the turtles I was looking at were dead.
Strewn with dead turtles
All along the beach. Just carcasses in various stages of decomposition. Not a single live, flapping, crawling, nesting one. Maybe it isn't season now (like the boatman, who walked me from the backwater to the beach said, preparing me in advance) but that reason would explain an absence of Ridleys altogether. Not a stretch of sand with the stench of beached turtles. Though protected under a Central law, in the past five years over 50,000 turtles have either been mangled by fishing trawler propellers or suffocated in fishermen's nets. Current mortality rates are estimated at 15,000 turtles per year. The Orissa State Government has declared the whole nesting area a marine sanctuary and has banned mechanised trawlers in the State. Besides, it is also urging local fishermen to include Turtle Excluding Devices (TED) in their fishing equipment. Although fishing is restricted around the marine sanctuary, mechanised trawlers move freely within 200 metres to 300 metres of the sanctuary, scouring the sea floor. It wasn't the day long, communing-with-nature trip I imagined for myself, but I'm glad I took the time and effort. I saw what tourists are meant to avoid. I now know that news reports about dead turtles aren't exaggerated. That mechanised fishing trawlers are responsible for new carcasses that are washed ashore each day. That if Orissa is the turtles' largest nesting ground, it is also their biggest graveyard.
Violations of the law
It appears that the death of turtles in this location is as much of an annual event as the mass nesting itself. For want of enforcement of fishing laws, hundreds of trawlers and boats continue to fish within prohibited zones and a 20-km "no fishing zone" at the Devi river mouth and the Rushikulya river mouth, killing turtles every day.
For centuries, these turtles have returned to the beaches where they were born. What an incredible homing device they must have. To swerve around continents and pass through seas. But sadly, we forgot to inform them of the new bypasses they must resort to. Away from deep sea drilling sites and shore side industries. Take a right past the mechanised trawler and ride the midnight current straight ahead. 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.
I spent my day sitting next to a turtle carcass. Trying to imagine the unassuming creature struggling with all its might to get out of the nylon nets. Being fished out by an exasperated person who finds it more logical to stab the turtle than cut the net. Turtles it turns out, are in fact very senstive. But then again, compared to us, anything would be.
During the time of my visit, dead Olive Ridleys were all I got to see. The officials insisted that the turtles would indeed arrive, but nobody could gauge when and in what numbers the nesting would take place. The nesting patterns of the Olive Ridleys could be predicted like clockwork previously have grown erratic the difference is now measured in weeks, sometimes months. But the forces of nature are stronger than the danger signals which the Ridleys might be receiving. Relentless, they do return. But the numbers are shrinking every time.
Olive Ridleys normally nest in Orissa between November and February. Recent news reports revealed that nesting has taken place in the reserve sanctuary, as well as in the southern districts of Puri and Ganjam, in the first week of March. Though the mass nesting lasted a mere four to six days, the numbers were reassuring this time around.
Wildlife experts and activists believe the delay is due to increased fishing activities along the coastline and climate change, which increases the temperature of the water.
Late nesting is also believed to skew the gender ratio of hatchlings.
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