People in Odisha, a state in India, used to steal the eggs of sea turtles because they considered the eggs to be delicacies. This practice caused the number of local sea turtles to plummet. These days, however, local fishing communities better understand how valuable turtles are to nature and are therefore beginning to protect them.
The beaches of Odisha, in the Indian Ocean, are important nesting areas for sea turtles. Every year between January and April, female turtles return to three beaches (named Gahirmatha, Devi, and Rushikulya) to spawn. In less than two months, the newborn turtles begin to emerge from the sand and head out to sea, much to the delight of locals and tourists alike.
Sea turtles are a vulnerable species and are protected by law. The main threats to aquatic animals in Odisha's coastal waters involve fishing practices, which can lead to high mortality rates among turtles and other sea creatures. Importantly, many turtles become entangled in trawls and gillnets until they drown.
A recent study has shown that during the breeding seasons between 2007 and 2010, more than 10,000 turtles perished in local waters. Females are especially at risk, posing a threat to the fertility of the turtles. “Since females spend more time in the coastal waters of the nesting ground, they are subject to a longer interaction with the coastal fisheries. This could be behind the large number of dead female turtles documented during our study, ”the study notes.
The state government and many conservationists have implemented various initiatives to protect turtles. They include the prohibition of fishing activities near nesting areas. However, for conservation to be truly effective, the cooperation of local fishing communities is essential. “We never harmed the turtles as they were considered an avatar of [the Hindu deity] Lord Vishnu, but we used to take the eggs and eat or sell them,” says Rabindra Nath Sahu, a local conservationist.
“But in 1993, Bivash Panday, a scientist from the Indian Wildlife Institute, visited this region and showed us this incredible phenomenon of arribada (a Spanish term for mass nesting). I think then we tagged about 10,000 nesting turtles, ”he adds.
“I have been hooked on turtle conservation work ever since, and I can assure you that no one in any of these three villages now dreams of poaching the precious creatures. And it will continue like this ”.
However, people are not the only threat to the eggs. They are also at risk of being eaten by predators, including stray dogs and scavengers. To prevent that from happening, groups of locals patrol the beaches and protect the nesting areas from those predators. Local people can also be seen carrying buckets to collect hatchlings and help them reach the sea.