From predators to protectors: Indian villagers rally to save their turtle neighbours

Once, this fishing community ate the eggs laid in the mass nesting sites on their shores – now, the people help them to hatch

Bipro Behara, a volunteer who guards olive ridley nesting sites, holds up shells of the turtles' eggs on a beach at Podempeta in Ganjam district. Taniya Dutta / The National
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As a child, Magata Behara and members of his fishing community ate the eggs laid by olive ridley sea turtles on the shore of India's Odisha state. Now he is part of a community group that protects the nesting sites that are critical to the survival of the species.

Hundreds of thousands of females come ashore along Odisha's 480km coast on the Bay of Bengal from February to April each year. They lay their eggs either at solitary spots or mass nesting sites known as arribidas.

“When I was a child, I used to eat turtle eggs, mainly because there was no awareness," Mr Behara, 40, told The National. "People did not know how rare the turtles were but they understand now.”

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the olive ridley as a vulnerable species, meaning they are at a high risk of extinction in the wild.

While still abundant, olive ridley turtle numbers have declined by about a third from historic levels. Adding to pressures, they have lost many nesting sites, with only a few remaining globally.

Named due to the green colour of their heart-shaped shells, olive ridleys are one of the smallest species of sea turtles. Adults grow to about 76cm in length and weigh less than 50kg.

Found in the waters of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, they travel thousands of kilometres a year as they migrate between feeding and breeding grounds.

Despite trade in their meat, shells and leather being banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, poaching of the turtles remains widespread, with a large market for their eggs in coastal regions, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

However, the biggest threat to the species is adults being accidentally caught and killed in the nets of fishing boats near nesting beaches during mating season, the WWF says.

Olive ridleys play an important role in the coastal ecosystem by maintaining the health of seagrass beds that nurture other marine life forms, while the shells of their eggs act as fertiliser for vegetation along the shore.

Indian authorities have been protecting the turtles since 1972, when the government banned the eating of turtle eggs. Odisha's wildlife department has banned fishing boats from operating in a 20km zone from the coast along about 120km of its shoreline during breeding season. But these measures have only started to take effect after educating, involving and supporting local residents.

“The government is pushing for the conservation of [olive ridley] turtles because this is an endangered species,” Sunny Khokhar, a state wildlife official, told The National. "There are only three sites for mass nesting In the world – one in Mexico and two in Odisha.

The wildlife department pays fishermen's families 15,000 rupees ($180) each month while the fishing ban is in force and also hires coastal residents to help with the safe release of hatchlings, monitoring turtle numbers and fencing off the nesting sites, Mr Khokhar said.

Village volunteers keep watch over the nesting sites during the 45 to 60 days that it takes for the eggs to hatch.

“I was 12 when I first saw them," said Bipro Behara, a local volunteer. "I was scared but now I am familiar with the turtles.

"I volunteer every year during mass nesting season.

“We patrol at night, profile the beach and when there is mass nesting, we keep the eggs safe from birds and dogs."

The turtles also face an indirect threat from human activity in the form of climate change.

Odisha is one of the Indian states worst affected by climate change. Natural disasters increased three-fold in the state between 1970 and 2019, according to the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a Delhi-based policy research institution.

The state is regularly battered by cyclones that form in the Bay of Bengal. While such storms could wash away the turtle eggs, rising temperatures also pose a threat by altering the gender ratio of the olive ridley population.

“There is fear that rising temperatures could throw off the ratio of the turtles, as with warm temperatures more females would be born and this could disturb the ratio of females to males,” Mr Khokar said.

Updated: February 23, 2024, 12:34 PM