By Basudev Mahapatra*
It’s not just the human species which faces the brunt of coastal erosion, climate change and increased sea surface temperature attributed as an early effect of El Nino. The endangered Olive Ridley marine turtles face it too. Hundreds of thousands of the species are feared to have skipped their annual sojourn to the Odisha’s Gahirmatha beach, one of their favourite destinations for mass nesting, this season.
Travelling over 1000 miles in the Indian Ocean from the coastal waters of Sri Lanka to the Gahirmatha coast in the Bay of Bengal, the turtles congregate on the coast during October-November every year for mating. The annual event of mass nesting usually takes place between January and March every year.
But this year, the event has not yet occurred though the season is nearly at its end.
Interesting read: Olive Ridley hatchlings begin seaward march from Odisha’s Gahirmatha
Increasing human interference
For safe nesting activities of the marine turtles, fishing within 20 KM of the coast is banned from November 1, 2013, till May 31, 2014.
“In spite of this, the turtles are in trouble due to frequent and illegal movement of trawlers in the prohibited area,” said a local volunteer.
Apart from trawl fishing, missile tests by the Indian Defence Ministry’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) during the breeding season are also believed to be a disturbing factor.
“Despite requests from the government to refrain from testing missiles during the turtle breeding season, test fires are being routinely conducted. This seems to be an act of irresponsibility from the DRDO,” said Biswajit Mohanty, well known turtle conservator and a noted wildlife activist.
From November 2013 till date, at least four tests have been carried out by DRDO at Wheeler Island, which is close to the turtle nesting site, the latest of them on the night of April 11, 2014. As per reports, DRDO has plans to carry out more than a dozen such tests in the next 45 days, very much during the turtle breeding season that extends up to May 31.
To many, activities at the Dhamra Port are also believed to be another factor that affects the breeding activities of sea turtles. Ironically, the negative impact of the port on turtle breeding was well known even when the port on Dhamra River mouth that acts as the turtle movement channel was at the planning stage.
Shrinking space, disturbed climate
Conservationists and wildlife experts say the turtles are deprived of the space they require because of rapid coastal erosion caused by frequent high tides that have deformed the beach geographically and shrunk the space available for nesting.
“Erosion has assumed alarming proportions and is now the single biggest threat to the beach and the marine species that travel so long in the ocean to reach their favourite ground for nesting. If the trend continues, the turtles may have no other option but to abandon the beach altogether and look for other destinations,” said Jivan Das, an activist involved with leading animal welfare body of India – the People for Animal (PFA).
“Significant changes in the climate have also contributed to making the beach unsuitable for nesting activity of the marine turtles,” Das added.
“The unusual rain in the peak nesting season, frequent high tides and variation in coastal temperature are some of the indicators of climate change that could have disturbed the balance of moisture in the air and sand, which is an essential factor to keep the beach conducive for nesting of turtles,” said Dr Rahas Bihari Panda of Department of Environmental Science, North Odisha University.
El Nino indication?
“The delay in the activity of the turtles could also be attributed to the El Nino impact. As scientists have predicted the possible impact of the phenomenon over Indian weather, the marine reptiles might have sensed it early from the transportation of heat by sea current,” Dr Panda added.
El Nino, a Spanish word meaning little boy, is the most intense short-term perturbation of climatic system of the Earth. Causing unstable interactions between the ocean and atmosphere, the developed phase of El Nino is characterized by a temperature elevation at the ocean surface.
Climate scientists and meteorologists have warned about development of the El Nino weather phenomenon and its possible impacts on India, among other Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Indonesia. As its effect, India may have less rain and an arid climate this year.
As the breeding activities of the Olive Ridley turtles have close link with sea surface, soil and atmospheric temperatures, which largely determine the climatic condition, it is quite logical to draw the conclusion that the turtles are not comfortable at Gahirmatha coast, may be, due to temperature variation or rise and an unfavourable climate.
If that is so, what is the future?
One just has to look at the recent trends in the Costa Rica national park, host to the nesting activity of critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle. Coastal erosion and climate change have forced the turtles to change their migration route.
So, it’s not absurd at this point to anticipate a similar fate in the case of Gahirmatha nesting beach.
A hope without any clue !
Curiously, wildlife officials of the Odisha Forest department have not given up hope of the marine species visiting the beach en-masse for nesting altogether as the event has taken place during the later part of April in the past too.
“An unusual rain during the peak nesting season might have played deterrent to the annual breeding activity of the turtles. But a huge number of female turtles are still in the river mouth and the coastal sea. As the event of mass nesting, which places Gahirmatha in the international wildlife map, has taken place late in April in many past years, we still hope that it may be the same this year too,” said the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Kedar Kumar Swain of Rajnagar Mangrove (wildlife) Forest Division.
Unfortunately, there is no indication yet to support such a hope. The apprehension that the turtles may skip their annual activity this year is becoming stronger with every passing day.
But the big question is: will the turtles skip their activity at Gahirmatha only this year or is it going to last for a few years more or may be even eternity?
No matter which of the three it is, it is time to act! Or, we may lose a glorious wildlife heritage site forever!
* Basudev Mahapatra is a Bhubaneswar-based journalist, editor and documentary producer. He can be contacted at [email protected]