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Orissa beaches turn graveyards for turtles

By Jatindra Dash


27th March 2004

The famous nesting sites of endangered Olive Ridley turtles in Orissa have virtually turned into their graveyards, with the reported killing of 3,000 turtles this season by fishing boats and trawlers.

The state has three beaches -- Devi, Gahirmatha and Rusikulya River -- where the turtles nest every year during winter.

More than 700 egg-bearing female turtles have died after being snared in the nets of fishing boats at a 15-km beach in eastern India stretching from the Kadua river mouth to the Devi river mouth during the last few days, a conservation group said.

"These females were about to nest in a few days at this beach," Biswajit Mohanty, coordinator of Operation Kachhapa, told IANS.

"Since almost all the dead turtles are females, their eggs have spilled out on the sand and have become food for marauding jackals and dogs. The putrefying stench from the dead turtles hits the senses, mocking the oft-repeated claims of the government that all steps are being taken to protect the turtles," he said.

Orissa is known the world over as the biggest nesting site for Olive Ridley turtles. For want of enforcement of fishing laws, hundreds of trawlers and boats continue to fish within prohibited zones and a 20-km "no fishing zone" at the Devi river mouth and the Rushikulya river mouth, killing turtles every day.

Patrolling at the Devi river mouth has come to a standstill over the past few weeks due to non-availability of funds for buying fuel for the trawler of the fisheries department.

An extremely high rate of casualties occurred in March at the Devi river mouth with many dead turtles being washed up on the beach during the past three weeks.

On March 22, observers of Operation Kachhapa counted 591 dead turtles at the Devi river mouth, Mohanty said.

The next day, an estimated 6,155 dead turtles were counted on the Orissa coast from the Bahuda river mouth to the Dhamra river mouth in the Gahirmatha marine sanctuary.

During the past 11 years, over 110,000 turtles are believed to have been killed on the Orissa coast due to large-scale illegal mechanised fishing.

Last year Bangladeshi fishermen killed a forest guard at Gahiramtha after a boat was seized for illegal fishing inside the sanctuary.

In February a fact-finding team of a committee set up by the Supreme Court of India visited the turtle nesting sites to ascertain the implementation of its earlier orders for the protection of the animals.

The committee had ordered intensive patrolling of the three mass nesting sites at Gahirmatha, Devi and Rushikuyla to protect the turtles.

The Olive Ridley turtle is highly endangered and is protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Trapping or killing an Olive Ridley can lead to imprisonment for seven years if a person is convicted.

The state government has failed to utilise Rs.10 million given to its fisheries department over the past five years for the purchase of high-speed patrol boats.

Similarly, Rs.10 million given by the Indian Oil Corporation to the wildlife wing in 2000 is yet to be spent to acquire high-speed patrol craft.

Dilapidated fishing trawlers more than 20 years old are being used for patrolling by the forest and fisheries department in some places. These slow boats are unable to chase the fast fishing trawlers.

Conservationists from across the world have been petitioning the Indian and Orissa governments to protect the world's biggest turtle population.