Grim future faces Indian turtles

Thousands of endangered sea turtles have arrived back on India’s eastern coast to lay their eggs, but conservationists say their future looks grim. The good news is that every year, 200,000-300,000 Olive Ridley turtles nest on the beaches of Orissa state – one of the world’s largest nesting ground for this endangered species.

The bad news is that an estimated 129,000 turtles have died over the past 13 years. They usually suffocate in the nets of fishing boats not using mandatory turtle-excluder devices.

The mouth of the Rushikulya river is one of three key nesting areas in Orissa, along with the mouth of the Devi river and the Nasi islands in Gahirmatha.

Under threat

An Olive Ridley turtle, on an average, lays 120-150 eggs from which hatchlings emerge after about 45-50 days.

However, these eggs are at risk from predators such as dogs, jackals, wild boar, hyenas, crows, eagles and gulls. Eggs are also washed away due to the erosion of the beach.

Studies show that only a dangerously small percentage of the eggs hatch.

“No species can survive such a high mortality rate. It is more difficult for an already endangered species,” says Biswajit Mohanty, coordinator of Operation Kachhapa, a turtle conservation project.

He says lax enforcement of the law by the authorities has contributed to the “mass slaughter” of the turtles.

Now even their nesting grounds are under threat.

The original nesting beach at Ekakula Nasi was split by a cyclone in 1989 and a new island was created.

This new island – Nasi – was further split again in the mid-1990s after another strong cyclone, leading to the formation of two highly fragile islands now called Nasi I and Nasi II.

Experts believe that these two islands where nesting is now taking place could be further broken up and may disappear some day due to adverse weather conditions.

These low level islands are also washed over by the high tide leading to considerable loss of turtle eggs every season.

The Devi river mouth beach is now strapped for nesting space after the government planted a lot of casuarina trees.

Only the Rushikulya nesting beach appears to be safe for the turtles at present, say experts.

Also, under law, every fishing boat in Orissa is supposed to use turtle excluder devices as they save turtles from being trapped in fishing nets. But many boats freely violate the law.

Only one of the three nesting beaches – Gahirmatha – has been declared a marine sanctuary with fishing prohibited up to 20km (12.5 miles) into the sea.

Looming threat

Locals resent the way the rare mass nesting is being handled on the Orissa coast.

Lack of basic infrastructure like speedboats, patrol equipment, night vision arms, are major hindrances in protecting the endangered specie here, local resident Saroj Sahu says.

Despite the fact that the state-run Indian Oil Corporation has coughed up 10 million rupees to the Orissa forest department for turtle protection, no speedboats and other equipments have been bought.

Federal government money given for buying patrol speedboats has been lying unspent for the past eight years.

To promote the use of turtle excluder devices, the federal government has made available cheap devices costing about 3,000 rupees ($66) each. Still most of the fishing boats don’t use these devices.

Other long term threats loom large over the future of the turtles.

For one, a crude oil terminal is proposed at the Rushikulya nesting beach.

The federal government has also permitted drilling in offshore waters by petroleum companies for oil and gas exploration though a turtle expert group had warned that there were no studies about turtle activity in these waters.

One drilling block is in the path of migrating turtles according to satellite studies carried out in 2001 by the Wildlife Institute of India.