Saving India’s Ridleys

The subtext here is interesting. Conservation in India, built around exclusionary principles that try to protect biodiversity by blocking people’s access to natural resources, is seen as anti-poor. When environment NGOs insist that the state patrol more, or that the fishermen install turtle excluder devices (essentially, a trapdoor at the end of the net that swings upon if a large body like, say, a turtle, bumps into it), it is this perception that they run up against. Given that context, what is happening in Orissa is hugely interesting. The OMRCC has realised that the interests of the poorer parts of the local community actually align with the objectives of the conservationists.

In the third world, do conservation campaigns that ignore poverty stand any chance of success? an article examining this question in the specific context of the olive ridley turtles was published in the hindu businessline.

UPDATE (2018): I cannot find that link any longer. And so, here is the text of what I had written at the time.

Headline: Saving the Ridley

Shoulder: In the third world, do conservation campaigns that ignore poverty stand any chance of success?

Matter begins: It all began with a Greenpeace protest. Late in April, it lined up dead Olive Ridleys, all shrouded in white, all covered with marigold garlands, in front of Orissa CM Naveen Patnaik’s home in Delhi. It was classic Greenpeace. The idea was novel. It attracted the media. And the combative environmental NGO ensured that its message, that the Ridleys continue to die, that the Orissa CM is not doing enough, got transmitted unambiguously.

And yet, the event made one wonder what it would achieve. Orissa is one of the poorest states in this country. How much consideration could the government of such a state spare for turtles, especially if saving them involved impacting local livelihoods? And given that, what did the future hold for the Ridleys?

Chances are you are familiar with the contours of this story. Every year, between November and March, anywhere between 100,000-200,000 of these sea turtles nest at the shores of Orissa — mostly notably, Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary and the river mouth of the Rushikulya. They swim up from their feeding grounds, mate in the rich, shallow waters off the beaches, drag themselves ashore, lay eggs, as many as 120-300 to every nest, and then disappear into the sea for another year.

Things began to change after the early-eighties boom in the state fishing industry. Bigger boats came in. And tens of thousands of Ridleys began drowning in the large nets these boats sieve the seas with. In 1982, since the trawlers were eating into the local fishermen’s catch as well, the state passed the Orissa Marine Fishing Regulation Act (OMFRA). It told trawlers to keep at least ten kilometres off the coast. It warned fishermen with motorised boats to stay at least five kilometres off. Only small fishermen, fishing with unmechanised boats, would be allowed to fish within 5 kilometres of the beach. For an assortment of reasons, like the political clout of the trawler lobby, like the fishermen’s lack of awareness about their fishing rights, the OMFRA was never implemented. And the large boats continued to fish wherever they wished.

And then, as the turtles continued to die, the greens resurrected the OMFRA. it was perfect. Nearly all the turtles are killed within 5-6 kilometres of the shore. The OMFRA banned all mechanised fishing in this zone. The small fishermen could still come in, but they are not the ones killing the turtles anyway.

Unfortunately, however, they interpreted the law selectively and focused only on the turtles. The result? With the state government more worried about the fishermen than the turtles, the state wildlife department was unable to enforce the laws. And, unlike parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where trawlers respect fishing limits because the traditional fishing communities vigilantly monitor them, the local fishermen in Orissa evinced no interest. they saw the law as elitist, more concerned with turtles than them. The trawlers kept flouting the act.

And now, the OMRCC (Orissa Marine Resources Conservation Consortium), a body formed by fishworkers’ unions in orissa, conservation organisations, development NGOs and turtle biologists, is trying to change all that. And, oddly, it doesn’t focus too much on the turtles. The OMFRA, says Kartik Shanker, a turtle biologist, and one of the members of the consortium, could “have succeeded if it was enforced to protect the livelihoods based on that natural resource rather than a single enigmatic species.” Today, in most places, traditional fishermen are too unorganised to fight the trawlers off. Once, they can stand up to trawlers and make them keep out of the near shore waters, it is an incidental benefit for the turtles.

And so, the OMRCC is trying to raise awareness among the local community about its fishing rights, and encouraging them to report trawlers that flout the fishing act. Booklets in Oriya with pictorial representations of fishing zones are being distributed in all the villages in the mass nesting areas. Boards are being put up in these villages showing fishing zones for different crafts and gear. It’s also trying to ensure that the fishermen will not be harassed by the police if they report infringements.

The subtext here is interesting. Conservation in India, built around exclusionary principles that try to protect biodiversity by blocking people’s access to natural resources, is seen as anti-poor. When environment NGOs insist that the state patrol more, or that the fishermen install turtle excluder devices (essentially, a trapdoor at the end of the net that swings upon if a large body like, say, a turtle, bumps into it), it is this perception that they run up against. Given that context, what is happening in Orissa is hugely interesting. The OMRCC has realised that the interests of the poorer parts of the local community actually align with the objectives of the conservationists. Wouldn’t that, I wonder, be just as applicable to terrestrial conservation?

In the meantime, the turtles continue to bleed numbers. In the past thirteen years, 129,000 dead turtles have washed ashore on Orissa’s beaches. Other turtles, nobody knows how many, drowned but floated out to sea. Given that very little is known about them – the total population, the number of juveniles who graduate to adulthood every year — and the fact that these are slow growing, late maturing, long-living species, it’s hard to quantify the precise damage the nets are leaving in their wake.

In the absence of such information, two other metrics are used to keep tabs on their numbers — the mass nestings, and the size of the turtles. No mass nesting, says Biswajit Mohanty of Operation Kachchapa, a conservation programme supported by WPSI, “has taken place at the Devi’s river mouth (a previously huge nesting site) in recent years due to uncontrolled illegal trawling.” Similarly, mass nesting also failed to occur in Gahirmatha in 1997, 1998 and 2002.” Studies by Shanker revealed a decrease in the sizes of the turtles being caught in the nets. This, he says, can mean two things. A growing population, with a large number of juveniles entering the adult population relative to numbers of adults. Or, two, a decline in numbers of adults relative to a more or less fixed number of juveniles entering the population. “Given the mortality data from Orissa”, he wrote, “Scenario two is more likely.”

Newer threats are emerging as well. Tata Steel and Posco are constructing private ports very near the nesting sites. The state is expanding another 13 ports along the rivers and the coast. And then, there is Reliance’ offshore drilling project, plumb in the middle of the route the turtles take to Gahirmatha.

Worries persist.