The Olive Ridley turtles are Schedule I species under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, and are listed as ‘endangered’ in the IUCN Red Data Book. The marine turtles begin arriving for mass mating close to the Odisha coast from November.
More than 200 carcasses of the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles have washed up on the beaches near Paradip port of Odisha over the last couple of weeks raising concerns among wildlife conservationists about their future.
Conservationists in Paradip said more than a hundred Olive Ridley turtles were found dead on the beach between the Hanuman temple and Sandhakuda area on Friday morning with dogs and crows feasting on the carcasses.
“The entire beach is stinking with the rotting carcasses of the turtles. Though there is a prohibition on fishing in 20 km distance from the coast, trawler operators are fishing resulting in the turtles either getting entangled in gill nets or mauled by the propellers of the mechanised boats,” alleged Hemant Rout, an environmentalist and secretary of the Gahirmatha Marine Turtles and Mangrove Conservation Society. Rout said tourists who had come to take a walk on the beach were disgusted to see the carcasses lying all over the area.
A week before tourists on the Puri beach too found dozens of carcasses of the Olive Ridley turtles. The state wildlife department officials said they don’t have updated figures of the turtle casualties, but said between 1998 and 2003, at least 63000 Olive Ridley turtles were killed off the coast. “The number of casualties have however come down since then,” said a senior wildlife official, requesting anonymity.
The Olive Ridley turtles are Schedule I species under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, and are listed as ‘endangered’ in the IUCN Red Data Book. The marine turtles begin arriving for mass mating close to the Odisha coast from November. They mate within 5 km of the coast from December onwards following which the male turtles turn back and females remain in the sea for mass nesting on the beach. The mass nesting, is called arribada, which usually starts in the third week of February and early March when the gravid female turtles lay scores of ping-pong sized eggs on the sand.
Apart from the Odisha coast, the coast of the south American country of Venezuela is the only other place where these turtles migrate in large numbers.
The mating season is also the time when they end up getting ploughed down by the mechanised fishing trawlers or getting entangled by the gillnets that suffocate them to death. Since the last few years, the Odisha government banned fishing between November and May within 20 km of the coast and seized several trawlers near the Gahirmatha coast, where the mass nestings take place.
The state government in November last year in a high-powered committee meeting had also announced a series of measures including deployment of armed police for patrolling the coast, particularly near Gahirmatha, one of the mass nesting grounds under Rajnagar wildlife division that has seen quite a significant number of turtle casualties.
Divisional Forest officer of Rajnagar wildlife division, Bikash Das said in 2019-20, at least 40 trawlers were seized during patrolling. “We need more speed boats to enforce patrolling strictly as the area is quite large. Paradip Port Trust had promised us a speed boat which is yet to materialise,” said Das.
The mass deaths of the sea turtles that routinely come to the Odisha coast for mating and nesting in massive numbers have come at a time when the Odisha government is using it as a mascot for sports championships in the state. In 2017 and 2018, the Odisha government had made ‘Olly’ the official mascot for the Odisha Men’s Hockey World Cup and Asian Athletics Championships to represent the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles that travel thousands of kilometres across the sea to congregate on Odisha beaches.
While the state wildlife department does not have updated figures of the turtle casualties, wildlife conservationists alleged that in the last 17 years, at least 1.7 lakh Olive Ridley turtles may have died off the coast. “The only way turtle casualties can come down is by day and night patrolling by the Odisha forest department, fisheries department and Coast Guard. The forest and fisheries department play the most important role as they need to seize the fishing trawlers that violate the fishing ban. The fisheries department has not cancelled the licence of a single fishing trawlers even after their seizure,” said Biswajit Mohanty, secretary of NGO Wildlife Society of Odisha.