Turning turtle

  • 14/06/1998

Turning turtle Thousands of Olive Ridleys, an endangered species of sea turtles, are being swept up dead on the Gahirmatha coast since the beginning of the year. This has set alarm bells ringing in the environment community and experts the world over have voiced concern over the issue. Gahirmatha has emerged in recent years as the world's largest nesting ground for this species, of which only one out of 10,000 hatchlings survives to reach maturity. Roughly half the "two to three million" Olive Ridleys existing in the world have regularly been turning up at Gahirmatha, about half a million of them for mass nesting. But not this year. Nor last year.

The government has taken no more than inadequate steps to help the situation, and betrays no sign at all of trying to understand the overall phenomenon, let alone grasping the implications for the world's most famous nesting ground for Olive Ridleys.The importance of Gahirmatha was first noted in 1975 by H W Bustard, a undp consultant, who happened to be in Orissa at the time to study crocodiles. Bustard had earlier studied turtle behaviour in Mexico.

In January 1998 hundreds of Olive Ridleys were found on the Gahirmatha beach dead, drowned mostly, it turns out, by trawler nets in the seas, their bodies washed ashore by waves. In a travesty of known Olive Ridley behaviour, only 50 turtles managed to land this year to nest, as against hundreds of thousands in the past. In a 'normal' year it is sometimes difficult to walk on Gahirmatha, for the whole beach truly becomes a carpet of turtles. But now, as one drives along the Paradeep and Konark coast, thousands of dead turtles litter the shoreline, the shells bearing the initials j, f or m, put there by diligent Wildlife Institute of India (wii) resear-chers to indicate the month in which they were washed ashore.

A poor villager, 35-year-old Vidyadhar, takes time off to recall with sorrow how he spent his childhood taking joyrides on turtleback. Now he has been reduced to collecting skeletons, or memorising the death roll for researchers of the wii.

"Right through March, every wave brought with it three to four dead turtles. The whole beach now stinks", he says. The local people say the dead reptiles have been washed up everyday for the last four months. wii experts estimate that at least 15,000 turtles, primarily females, have so far been killed. The male of the species are said to desert the females after mating and go for deeper marine waters. So, they do not come into contact with trawler nets or other human artefacts.

Gahirmatha may be repeating history. Before it the Mexican coast used to be the favourite breeding ground of the Olive Ridleys. Intensified fishing and trawling activity in the area is blamed for having pushed them out of the region. Now only 300 to 400 turtles visit the Mexican coast for nesting.

Mass nesting is unique to this species. The creatures mate in the sea, congregate near the shoreline, as though in conference, and then emerge from the sea for nesting at night. By the morning they are gone, leaving their eggs behind, protected under the sand. When evening comes again, a fresh batch of a few thousand arrive. And so it goes on for up to eight to 10 consecutive days through January-February and April-May each year.

"Two years of consecutive failure of the Olive Ridleys to come to Gahirmatha calls for more critical study of these turtles. As far as the future is concerned, nobody can say for certain. Personally, I feel the turtles seem to prefer another place.Why this might be so I do not know", says Chandra Shekhar Kar, an acknowledged turtle expert currently with the Orissa state forest department who had collaborated with Bustard as a young researcher.

"That is probably the real reason", agrees Bivash Pandav, a researcher at Wildlife Institute of India (wii) working on Olive Ridleys since 1994. "Till now we have not studied the route and behaviour of turtles. So we can't say anything for certain. However, if human interference on the beach continues, there will be no place for them to nest", he says.

Gahirmatha was declared a marine sanctuary last year as a measure to protect the turtles. This seems to have had no impact on the situation, and mass nesting has not taken place. It is incumbent on the government to find out why and take remedial steps. There are two other Olive Ridley rookeries in Orissa. The one at the Devi river mouth, discovered in 1981 by Kar, has witnessed limited nesting both in 1997 and 1998. The Rushikulya rookery, discovered by wii in 1994, played host to something like 12,000 turtles this year. So, where have the rest of the Olive Ridleys, that used to come to Gahirmatha, gone? This is the question. For now there are no answers.

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