Devastation in the Face of Conservation


Sunilkanth Rachamadugu

The Plight of Olive Ridley Sea Turtles

Every winter, the East Coast of India witnesses the “arribada”, which is Spanish for “mass arrival.” It is the season for a spectacular natural phenomenon: the synchronized nesting of thousands of olive ridley sea turtles. Off the coast of the state of Odisha, the turtles congregate to mate and then the females come to the shore to lay eggs before returning to the sea. According to the “Checklist of Chelonians of the World” by Fritz Uwe and Peter Havas, in 1991, over 600,000 turtles nested along the coast of Odisha in one week.

Olive ridleys are the smallest marine turtle and are found in parts of the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific oceans. They nest in as many as 60 countries worldwide, including India, Arabia, Japan, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. They are also found along the coasts of Northern Brazil, Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana, and Venezuela.

Despite the fact that these turtles are considered the most abundant sea turtle in the world, olive ridleys today are listed in “Vulnerable” category on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This classification is due in part to an estimated 50% decline in the animals’ worldwide numbers since 1960. Severe degradation of nesting sites, eggs being taken by humans, and the slaughter of nesting females for their meat and skin have contributed to the severe decline in population of this species. Perhaps the most significant harm to these turtles is inflicted by large mechanized fishing trawlers and gill-netters: turtles are injured by the boats’ propellers and killed in the fishing nets. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, a staggering total of 100,000 dead turtles have washed ashore in the past decade, almost all of them breeding adults.

Last December, my family and I were in Puri, a seaside town 60 km south of the Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar. Even though this isn’t a nesting site for olive ridleys, we were hoping to get a glimpse of the famous arribada as our visit happened to coincide with the nesting season. Unfortunately, we did not see any nesting and much to our distress, we saw hundreds of dead turtles washed ashore. Each morning during our routine walks we came across carcass after carcass—the beach had hundreds of them strewn everywhere. This mass slaughter still occurs despite the many conservation efforts that are being undertaken to protect the turtles: hatcheries are being built, night patrols are being organized near nesting sites, and strict laws have been enacted against trading of animal products, killing the turtles/hatchling or collection of eggs, and against fishing the turtles.

Looking at the statistics of olive ridley deaths over the last few decades, there seems to be a fundamental flaw in the approach being taken toward conservation. The conservation is multidimensional and is couched in multiple socioeconomic issues. The multifaceted nature of conservation is even more evident for countries like India, where a large section of the population is below the poverty line and does not have sustainable means to earning a living. Are our Indian laws and regulations talking in terms of absolutes and not taking a balanced stand? Does this make our laws fundamentally flawed and impossible to enforce or obey? These are just some of the many pertinent questions that conservation enthusiasts like me hope to raise and that the government needs give serious consideration.

After a conversation with one of the locals, I found that a major portion of Odisha’s coastline is off limits to fisherman for almost seven months a year and this is part of the conservation effort enacted to protect marine life. This ban has caused a huge decline in income and coupled with the fact that very few opportunities for alternative employment exist locally, fishermen are left with no other choice than to flout the law. This issue of man-animal conflict seems to be a common occurrence—we routinely read news articles about elephants destroying crops, leopards entering residential areas, and tigers becoming man-eaters and cattle snatchers.

How should a regulator ideally tackle this age-old conflict? Is a win-win solution a possibility with an issue like this? In the last few years, projects like the Integrated Coastal Zone Management Project that is taken up by India’s Ministry of Environment & Forest in collaboration with the World Bank seem to be making some progress in this direction. The program sets out to adopt an approach that requires a multi-disciplinary consultation and is also looking at involving local stakeholders in the discussions and the decision-making process. News articles and reports are talking about capacity building projects that are being undertaken and there seems to be some progress in resolving sectorial conflicts and mediating beneficial trade-offs.1 Hopefully this is a step in the right direction.

As I write this, I realize that I have more questions than answers, but I hope we will soon find a solution before another species permanently disappears from our planet. I also hope to see the arribada one day and I hope that the olive ridleys will receive a warm welcome when they arrive en masse along the shores of Odisha.

For more information about issues related to olive ridley turtle conservation, read:

  • Checklist of Chelonians of the World by Fritz Uwe and Peter Havas
  • Operation Kachhapa: An NGO initiative for Sea Turtle Conservation in Orissa by B. Wright and B. Mohanty