Late one February night, a group of around 10 women and children from Puranabandha village in Odisha’s Ganjam district, made their way to the Gokurkhuda beach to watch the arribada—the mass arrival of turtles.
Much like the assortment of conservationists, researchers and nature enthusiasts there, this group was propelled by a curiosity and desire to watch a climactic moment in olive ridley ecology. The late-night trip meant the children would end up missing their tuitions and the women had to leave their infants in the care of others; but they did it for the fulfilment of seeing the spectacle of thousands of turtles come to nest. “The children really wanted to see the mass nesting, they were so curious. And since we have seen them before, we wanted our children to see them,” said Aarthi Behera, a resident of Puranabandha.
Every step I took along the shore left a faint trail of glowing bioluminescence. Very much like a busy terminal, the night was filled with departures and arrivals of turtles. Female ridleys arrived in batches, giving us the opportunity to witness the extraordinary synchronised nesting as dawn broke. Sea turtles are fascinating creatures: they exhibit philopatry, which means they return to the same beaches where they were born to nest again as adults. The ease with which they can be approached makes them a favourite with wildlife tourists.
But while I feasted my eyes on this annual phenomenon, the group of villagers, who had, with equal enthusiasm, made it to the site, was prohibited by the Odisha Forest Department from entering the beach—a beach that they believe to be their own, an extension of their homes. The entry to the nesting zone was restricted to VIPs (turtles are obviously immune to disturbance if it comes from an important person).
I encountered this group from Puranabandha on the way to the beach where I was to monitor the nesting as part of our research programme. “We weren’t allowed to go to the beach. The kids were really disappointed,” said Jamuna Behera. “We have been helping protect turtles for so many years. But we were told that entry was only for VIPs,” said the husband of one of the women who was denied entry.
The forgotten stewards of this phenomenon, the communities of these fishing villages, have for decade, without any incentives, been hands-on conservationists. If the arribada legacy “belongs” to anyone, it is them—the communities that live alongside these turtles.
Rescuing turtles entangled in nets, releasing stray hatchlings back into the sea, shooing away predators like dogs and jackals, and being mindful of their fishing practices by picking spots and times that avoid disturbing turtles have become second nature to many members of these communities. There have been instances when fishermen have avoided fishing altogether when turtle density has been high (it is problematic for both turtles and fishers as turtles constantly get entangled in nets and often end up tearing them). Many revere turtles as they believe them to be an incarnation of Vishnu. Armed with buckets, many Self-Help Group (SHG) members rescue hatchlings that have lost their way during mass hatching. When scientists pointed out that hatchlings get disoriented by light, several villages began to turn off the temple lights at night. In contrast, the neighbouring factory, owned by a leading industrialist of the region, refused to do the same.
Another community-led conservation initiative is the local NGO, Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee, managed by Rabindranath Sahu, a resident of Puranabandha village. His tryst with turtle conservation has instilled in him an interest in conservation, which extends to house sparrows and other creatures.
The forest department does play its part in protecting these turtles and even employs locals in this effort. Butwhen residents of villages, who want to witness a phenomenon such as the arribada , are prohibited entry to their own beach, it would seem that something is definitely amiss. In the excitement of experiencing the arribada, we indeed forget the predicament of local fishermen, many of whom live hand to mouth. If they are unable to fish, it could mean days of going hungry to bed. While there is a seasonal ban on fishing that does not prohibit traditional fishers, the lack of awareness of the law on all sides makes them victims of unnecessary restrictions imposed by the government.
Meanwhile, with the growing modernisation of fishing techniques, the occupation is beginning to seem unsustainable to many. Trawling sweeps the ocean floor capturing young fish, gravid females, and many other creatures including turtles. What used to be considered ‘trash fish’ are now used as chicken-feed in many parts of the coast. Such practices have lead to a decline in fish catch, the brunt of which is faced by the traditional, small-scale fisherfolk. And the communities living along the mass nesting beach are caught between the decline, the fishing restrictions and developmental blocks. When crores of rupees go into turtle conservation, these communities find it difficult to comprehend why some of it can’t be used to assist them.
For the short duration of the arribada, most of the affected fishermen are not given sufficient compensation or alternatives for the work interrupted by conservation activities. Some compensation is offered in the form of 5 kg of rice per person. Members of the fishing community complain that this is highly inadequate and does not account for other needs such as oil, vegetables, etc. Some people are left out of these schemes altogether because of hurried surveys, and the redress of their complaints is painstaking and time-consuming. Many of these communities do not have access to basic needs like drinking water, garbage disposal or sanitation.
But residents of these fishing villages remain hopeful. As one resident points out with pride, Rushikulya has received global acclaim thanks to olive ridleys. And they hope that with every group of visitors, someone will take note of the hardships they face, and that change will come—change they are entitled to.
An avid birdwatcher and Ultimate Frisbee fan, the author works with Dakshin Foundation in Bengaluru.