English Free Article | Oceans | Wildlife

The Olive Ridleys of Gahirmatha

Before you start presuming that we are referring to Mr. Riddle of Batman fame, let us quickly clarify that Olive Ridleys are poor green turtles, high on the endangered list, while Gahirmatha is this muddy beach beside a luxuriant patch of mangrove forest, along the coast of Odisha.

Have you ever wondered about the many beautiful creatures that are lost forever in the onslaught of our ever-growing concrete jungles? Encased prettily in jars filled with liquid, creatures large and small will meaninglessly glare into the face of our future generations, if we do not care to do something about it today! Well, the Olive Ridley Turtle, a beautiful reptile, is now fighting for its survival.

To help an organism regain its vitality the first step is to know about the animal, its likes and dislikes. Well, Olive Ridleys are shy creatures wandering about in the wide oceans, visiting land only to nest.

Bhitarkanika is one of the nine known nesting sites of Olive Ridley Turtles in the world where it exhibits a mass-nesting phenomenon called arribada or arriba zones. On April 22, 1975, Bhitarkanka including the entire shoreline from the mouth of river Dhamra to that of River Barnrai, was declared a wild life sanctuary and was brought under the supervision of FAO and UNDP in 1976.

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The 35km long sandy stretch of beach, between the mouths of the Harisua and Maipura rivers at Bhitarkanika sanctuary, Gahirmatha is the prime nesting ground of the Ridleys. Wild life division of the Department of Forests and the State Government of Odisha have also reported other mass nesting grounds of the Olive Ridley Turtles, such as the Robert Island and Rushikulya estuary (located in the southern most part of the Odisha coast). There are also several other sporadic nesting grounds along the mangrove coasts along the coast of Odisha.

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The Gahirmatha beach is indeed an important venue for the study of our Olive Ridleys. The nesting starts in the first week of January and arribada occurs around March. However, in the years 1997-98, 2002-03, 2008-09 and 2014-15 there was no mass nesting.
The causes are several, from absence of suitable conditions for mating due to abnormal ocean-atmospheric interaction in the region to the disturbance caused by human activities like beach erosion, bright light from the missile test range at the Wheelers’ Island near Gahiramatha, bad weather and illegal fishing.

Modern mechanized trawlers with tearing gears and chopping blades either divert the turtles or kill them. Commercial harvesting of turtle eggs and adults turtles has caused considerable damage hampering the growth and jeopardizing the habitat of the turtles. Added to all this, the traditional mode of destruction of eggs by animals like jackal, fox, snakes, birds and other creatures create a vacuum which will indeed take a extreme effort to restore. It is saddening to note that the protection of this rare species has not yet drawn enough attention.

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The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) with the cooperation of the State Government and the Central Government of India, has initiated the steps for the protection and conservation of these crucial little creatures. The measures taken involves declaring the breeding area of the turtles as the ‘Marine National Park’, along with the launch of a multicrore project to study the habitat, life-cycle and other activities of the species through satellite studies involving several universities and national institutes.

You may already be aware that year 2000 made history in the rates of mass nesting at Gahirmatha, churning out a record 12,35,777 turtles between 13-03-2000 and 23-03-2000. This is the productive best in 15 years according to the research and development statistics. Well, this seems to be a silver lining in an otherwise gloomy sky, and we can only hope mass nesting rates soar higher each year restoring the balance that is almost lost.

Around 4,133,334 turtles laid eggs on Nasi 1 and Nasi 2 islands in the first week of March 2015. In 2016, turtles in groups of 2,000 to 5,000 came to the shore to lay eggs. The state government imposed a ban on fishing activities inside the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary on a 35 km stretch from Hukitola to Dhamara and on a 20 km stretch off the shore from November 1, 2015, till June 1, 2016 to protect the turtles. (https://goo.gl/O9UWtW)

During this ban period, forest officials seized 45 fishing boats and trawlers and arrested 240 fishermen on charges of illegally fishing within the sanctuary. About 30 forest guards were put to look after the nesting points and the coast to protect the turtles and their eggs.

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