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On The Shore Of Life And Death

On The Shore Of Life And Death

In Odisha’s Ganjam district, a concerted effort by the Forest Department, NGOs and local communities is underway to ensure safe passage for thousands of olive Ridley hatchlings at the Gokharkuda beach, reports Pranav Capila.

In the cool wet sand at my feet, an olive Ridley hatchling lies upturned, unmoving. The pale yellow of its underbelly is exposed to the harsh morning sun, to the ghost crabs plucking delicately at the eyes of its many dead conspecifics, to the murder of crows gorging on unhatched eggs nearby.

Just six metres away the sea roars encouragement, beckons with effervescent fingers. The hatchling tilts its head, stirs from its stupor. Its right fore flipper extends towards the sky, its neck arches upwards and backwards, and with a supreme effort it rolls right side up. Then it moves towards the tide. Pulling with fore flippers, pushing with hind. The same determined crawl that has advanced it across the epochs.

Olive Ridley hatchlings face a host of natural and man-made threats as they make their way to the sea. Seen here is a clutch of Ridley hatchlings trapped in a ghost net. Photo: Rudra Prasanna Mahapatra

FITTER THAN THE DINOS

I am in the Ganjam district of Odisha, at Gokharkuda beach near the Rushikulya river mouth: one of the largest olive Ridley sea turtle nesting sites in the world. About 50 volunteers have been aggregated here this mid-April morning, for the 'Emergency Reponse for Olive Ridley Hatchlings', organised by Wildlife Trust of India and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW-WTI) in concert with the Odisha Forest Department.

Ideally, we wouldn't be needed.

Sea turtles have, after all, withstood the planet's vicissitudes for well over a hundred million years. (The oldest known sea turtle fossil is that of Desmatochelys padillai, an Early Cretaceous species that lived about 120 million years ago.) Ancestral sea turtles brushed off the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction that wiped out non-avian dinosaurs along with three-fourths of all plant and animal species some 66 million years ago. And we evolutionary noobs, not even haplorrhines when ol' Chicxulub shivered the Earth, now have to help these ancient creatures survive!

In an ideal world we wouldn't be needed. But six of the seven extant sea turtle species are now threatened with extinction according to the IUCN's Red List. Some are deemed 'Critically Endangered'. Even Lepidochelys olivacea, the olive Ridley, understood to be the most abundant sea turtle species, has been declared 'Vulnerable'.

Human activities have driven these declines. The illegal trade and direct consumption of sea turtle meat, eggs, shells and leather. Offshore mortality related to by-catch in fisheries, particularly due to turtle-unfriendly fishing practices during the breeding seasons. Unsustainable coastal development (sea ports, oil refineries, industrial units, tourist infrastructure) leading to the destruction and degradation of nesting beaches. The  plantation of exotics like Casuarina in a misplaced effort to create bioshields against storms, tsunamis and tidal erosion, compromising natural nesting habitats. The warmer global temperatures associated with human-accelerated climate change are also believed to be altering the thermal profile of some nesting sites, increasing nest failure and skewing sex ratios in favour of females (sex determination and hatching success is temperature dependent in sea turtles).

For hatchlings there is the added issue of light pollution. They typically emerge en masse from their nests in the cooler pre-dawn hours, crawling towards the glow of the sky over the open sea. Artificial light sources are disorienting, causing them to move off in the wrong direction or linger on the beach, increasing their vulnerability to predators.

With its proximity to the busy Bhubaneswar-Khurdha-Brahmapur Road (National Highway 16), the beach we're on has particular problems with light pollution.

Olive Ridley hatchlings face a host of natural and man-made threats as they make their way to the sea. Seen here is a clutch of Ridley hatchlings trapped in a ghost net. Photo: Madhumay Malik

THE EDGE OF CHAOS

"Turn off that headlamp now, please! There has to be no light. No torches, no light! And turn off your cellphones. Taking a selfie with a hatchling will be the last thing you do on this beach!" IFAW-WTI’s Rudra Prasanna Mahapatra, our team leader, lays down the law on Gokharkuda beach.

We arrive at 4.00 a.m. when it is still dark, walking past the screens that the Forest Department has set up to block ambient light and keep terrestrial predators at bay. We sit at the back of the beach, anxious, eager. The faintest glimmer of dawn appears on the far edge of the sky beyond the Bay of Bengal. By 4.30 a.m. we can see, and we are confronted with chaos.

The arribada, the synchronised mass nesting phenomenon unique to olive and kemp's Ridleys among extant sea turtle species, is an evolutionary strategy designed to overwhelm predators through economies of scale. Tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of Ridley mothers arrive on the larger nesting beaches, laying a hundred eggs each on average, producing millions of hatchlings. I have never witnessed the arribada itself, but its outcome, in terms of the sheer number of hatchlings crawling this beach... I mean it's like Old MacDonalds Farm for sea turtles (here a hatchling, there a hatchling, everywhere a hatchling-hatchling). 'Overwhelming' doesn't begin to cover it.

In consultation with the Forest Department team on site, we concentrate our efforts where they're most needed – on nesting areas towards the back of the beach. Hatchlings making their own way towards the sea are not interfered with (in keeping with the briefing we received in Bhubaneswar last evening); those that are disoriented or trapped in vegetation are carefully picked up and placed in shallow pails. The hundreds, perhaps thousands of hatchlings caught up in ghost nets are disentangled only by the volunteer veterinarians, using surgical scissors.

"Free the neck first, then the body, then the flippers," Dr. Indramani Nath directs his wards. Dr. Nath, a professor with the Veterinary College of the Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology (OUAT), has brought ten of his postgraduate and Ph.D. students to this emergency response. He is an immensely experienced wildlife veterinarian, but this is his first encounter with sea turtle hatchlings. "It's a remarkable experience even just in terms of the sheer scale of it," he declares, showing a student how hatchlings should be held as they are being cut free ("not belly up, it can cause respiratory distress"). "Discarded nets seem to be a big issue on this beach," he muses, "so next time we can involve local fishermen and try to preempt the problem."

Further down the beach I encounter 35-year-old Magat Behara, a local conservationist from the village of Purunabandha located just a kilometre away. Magata has been a field assistant with the Odisha Forest Department, has helped monitor the Rushikulya rookery with the Indian Institute of Science's Centre for Ecological Science, and has worked on community-based conservation with the Dakshin Foundation. His father was a fisherman and he remembers being captivated by olive Ridleys as he went to sea as a child. "A lot has been done to curb illegal fishing practices in near-shore areas here," he says; "the work done by the Forest Department, researchers and NGOs is turning the tide. But not enough has been done for the traditional fishermen who are losing their livelihood because of fishing bans. More than just compensation we need to push for regular health camps and for the creation of pathways to higher education. People here are interested but have few opportunities to better themselves. It will benefit turtle conservation if local people are helped."

Bikers from Bhubaneswar, members of the local NCC Air Wing Squadron, OUAT vets, a doctor, some students who insist they've seen me on the Discovery Channel (Baboon Week, perhaps?) – the volunteers are an eclectic bunch. At the edge of a shallow backwater lagoon I meet Kiran V.S., a 26-year-old commerce graduate employed with the Bank of Maharashtra in Kottayam, Kerala. Kiran is "particularly fascinated with olive Ridleys" and has been travelling in his spare time, trying to learn about the species. He has experienced the arribada at Velas in Ratnagiri and participated in a community-driven beach clean-up with the NGO Neythal in Kasaragod. I watch as he wades into the lagoon, diligently scooping up happy hatchlings that think they've made it to the open sea.

Veterinarian Dr. Indramani Nath shows his students how to untangle a hatchling from a ghost net. Forest guards and local volunteers can be seen working in the background. Photo: Pranav Capila

THE LAST RIDLEY

For five hours we toil. Rescued hatchlings are brought to a command area where the bucket-fulls are weighed. (Individual hatchlings are also weighed and measured at random, and the average weight of empty buckets recorded.) The hatchlings are released at the high tide line and allowed to make their own way into the water – which is believed to help the females imprint on the beach they will return to many years later, to produce their own offspring. An estimated 20,000+ hatchlings have been rescued at the end of a combined 270 hours of work. And if I present that considerable figure rather blithely it's because about half a million hatchlings are believed to have emerged that morning, according to the Forest Department. How many did other crews save? How many made it into the sea on their own? How many did we just leave to their fate? You believe you would never become numb to the plight of a helpless animal. And then you witness this grand performance by Life and Death.

It is 9.30 a.m., far too bright, too hot, for hatchlings to emerge. Many still wander the beach, disoriented; too many are already dead, their carcasses a feast for crabs and kites and crows. I lift a feeble straggler from the baking sand, feeling the surprisingly strong kick of its flippers against the air. I set it down some nine metres from the water's edge.

It crawls, renewed, driven by an ancient urge towards the sea. A ghost crab scuttles in from the left, tugging at its flipper. The hatchling veers right, beating away the challenge. It disentangles itself from a beached sea urchin, moving left again, and another crab sidles in. Once again the hatchling extricates itself, moving towards the water with a desperate urgency. Then it slows, exhausted, and stops.

The team comprising organisers, volunteers, and veterinary students successfully pulled off a massive rescue operation. Photo: Pranav Capila 

But the tide has come in. The sea folds it into a cool embrace, and it is gone. (It is estimated that at best just one in 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings will survive to reach adulthood. I know I'm being selfish, but please, let this be that one.)

Author: Pranav Capila, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 6, June 2018.

 
 
 

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