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Turtle Safety and a troubled Fishing Community

"The government authorities use to enforce a ban on all type of fishing activities within 20 kilometres from the coast off Gahirmatha marine sanctuary and 5 kilometres off the coast at Rushikulya and Devi river mouth nesting sites from November to March...This ban affected the traditional fishing communities in a dire manner as fishing has been their major, almost only, source of livelihood."

Basudev Mahapatra : May 30, 2007

The death of Olive Ridley Sea Turtles across the coastline of Orissa has raised a global issue concerning the safety of this endangered species. The rising toll has inspired and motivated many wildlife lovers and dedicated organizations to work for the safety and influence policy makers in order to take sufficient security measures for these turtles who use to visit many places on the coast for nesting.

Named for the olive colour of its heart shaped shell, the Olive Ridley sea turtle is very well known for its mass nesting activity where thousands of females migrate in the sea to nest over stretches of sand beach they feel fit for. Looking at the increasing death toll of these sea turtles, they have been declared endangered species since July 28. 1978.

The coastline of Orissa has three famous destinations, the Devi river mouth, Gahirmatha in Bhitarkanika wildlife sanctuary and Rushikulya river mouth in Ganjam, where Olive Ridley Turtles visit in large numbers for nesting. However, the dead shells and crackled egg covers on the sea coast near Konark during the hatching season suggests the nesting activities on this beach although it is not visited by large number of turtles like other places. These turtles have been visiting Orissa since long but their numbers have started dwindling, almost dropping, in the recent years. Fortunately, the Olive Ridley turtles have found support from various quarters of global society but to no avail. Despite widespread activism and agitation by wildlife lovers and activists across the globe, recent studies have figured that Olive Ridley turtles are dying or being killed in massive numbers.

As per an overall assessment, more than 120,000 dead turtles have been found on the coasts of Orissa over the last decade. Last year during January to March, more than 2000 turtles were washed ashore over a period of three months in the Devi river mouth area alone while thousands of dead turtles have been found in other places like Rusikulya Mouth and Gahirmatha turtle sanctuary. The current mortality rate is expected to be more than 25,000 turtles a year which is an alarming rate and much beyond the estimated rate of 15,000 a year. If the turtles go on dying at this alarming rate, the endangered olive Ridley turtles would not find these places safe for nesting or would be extinct in the next few decades. In the 2006-7 season, there was a remarkable difference as the turtles didn't come for nesting as usual although they remained in the sea few kilometers off the coasts at Rusikulya and Devi River Mouth. This could be due to some sort of climatic reasons or the reasonably disturbing over activism by wildlife lovers, NGOs and government departments during the last years. The case was never examined sensibly from all angles.

In stead of looking at the issue properly, government authorities use to enforce a ban on all kind of fishing activities within 20 kilometres from the coast off Gahirmatha marine sanctuary and 5 kilometres off the coast at Rushikulya and Devi river mouth nesting sites from November to March. In the 2005-06 season, the ban on fishing was extended till May as the turtles kept coming in lakhs for an unusual second phase of mass nesting in the month of April. This ban has been affecting the traditional fishing communities in a dire manner as fishing is their major, almost only, source of livelihood.

Left with no alternative source of livelihood many fishermen committed suicide in Kendrapada and Puri districts of Orissa during the period of ban. The fact is, traditional fishermen consider turtles as an incarnation of god and worship them. They neither consume turtle eggs nor its meat. In fact, the Shrimp trawlers owned by large business houses and influential people like politicians or politically affiliated ones are the major culprits but flout the rules continuously. Turtles come ashore to breathe every 40 minutes and get caught in these trawl nets. These trawlers drag the nets for several kilometres as a result of which the turtles drown and die a very painful death. Turtles also get mangled by the engine propellers of these trawlers and die. The use of Turtle Excluding Device (TED) has not yet been enforced strictly for these trawlers which result in the mass killing of the Olive Ridley turtles.

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Asked about the turtle safety measures Dr. Chandra Sekhar Kar, Research Officer of Wildlife Organisation, Orissa Forest Department said, “Government has taken all possible measures for the safe nesting and hatching of Olive Ridley turtles”. But the rising turtle death toll explains how effective the steps taken by the government are. As said by wild life activist Niranjan Behera, “Government is not taking adequate measures to save the turtles nor is it co-operating the NGOs working in this direction.

Whatever steps government has taken for the safety of turtles are definitely not sufficient as the dead shells are being washed ashore in huge numbers every season. The NGOs working for turtle safety seem to be more critical about the government than serious about the issue. In between are the poor traditional fishing communities who suffer the most but their livelihood problem is either overshadowed by the turtles or neglected by the government. Although the situation demands for implementation of many development programmes for the rehabilitation of the affected fishing communities, such initiatives are almost invisible in the villages around the nesting sites. “Since the time of our ancestors there has been no development in this area which would generate more opportunities. Due to ban on fishing most of the fishermen are turning jobless and becoming unable to feed their family. What to do when situation goes worst? Many prefer to commit suicide”, says the villagers of Sahana with agony.

Realising the gravity of the problems faced by the fishing communities living around the nesting sites, international fame Green Peace Foundation has tried to influence the policymakers in the government to derive a clear policy and allocate funds for the rehabilitation of local fishing communities. The foundation has suggested for an allocation of 11.20 crores of rupees for the safety of Olive Ridley sea turtles out of which 9.18 crores is estimated to be spent for the rehabilitation of Fishing families affected due to turtle safety measures and rest for patrolling and security measures for safety of turtles. However, this is still a proposal and no action has yet been taken by the government in this direction.

The problems of the fishing folks need immediate attention. Negligence to their livelihood issues and delay in sorting them out would lead to many problems and hinder the programmes meant for better safety of the sea turtles. The growing discontentment and frustration among these fishing communities may also take shape of a widespread agitation on an issue that will put the turtle safety programmes as the second in the list of priority. Is this what wildlife loving organisations, activists and the concerned government department desire?



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