Unknown to most, a small group of naturalists in coastal Maharashtra have hit upon the right cocktail of environmental protection and village tourism to save the vulnerable olive ridley turtles. Uttara Gangopadhyay reports
For a few seconds, its slow gait reminded of a clockwork toy that had gone rusty but still worked if wound properly. It lifted one flipper at a time as if trying out the appendages it never believed it had earlier, and seemed even more surprised when it found that the movement propelled it ahead. Then as the huge waves crashed in front, bringing a smell of the sea in their wake, and the light of the early morning sun warmed its back, the centuries of experience coded in its genes seemed to explode inside its head. It rushed headlong into the waves, floated for a second on the water and was lost in the surge. The tiny hatchling was on its way to its pelagic home. The crowd cheered loudly as the last of the 23 baby turtles entered the water.
It was an early February morning and we were in Velas to attend the Turtle Festival, now organized annually, by the Sahyadri Nisarg Mitra (SNM). Tucked deep inside Maharashtra's Konkan coast, Velas and the Turtle Festival is the success story depicting the efforts of a few dedicated and hardworking naturalists. Led by Vishwas Katdare (lovingly called bhau Katdare), the group has initiated the annual festival to both spread the message of conservation and to involve the local people in the conservation efforts.
But all this would not have been possible if it was not for the chance discovery of nests of olive ridley turtles by a few members of SNM who had actually gone to Velas, an otherwise ubiquitous village along the Arabian Sea, to study the white-bellied sea eagle living among the craggy hills that bordered the beach. In 2002, they were surprised to find tiny mounds of sand strewn along the beach, something which they had never seen during their earlier trips. Inquiring locally, they learned these were nests of turtles that came from the sea to lay eggs. But stolen by some local people and foraged by dogs, few of the eggs survived. That year, a cargo ship had sunk off the Velas coast and there was strict police patrolling on the beach, which prevented the local people from coming and destroying the nests. Soon the group discovered these were nests of olive ridley turtles.
One of the smallest of the sea turtles, the olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) is found in large numbers across the globe. Though abundant, their number is depleting fast, and the species is categorized as 'vulnerable' under the IUCN Red List. The turtle gets its name from the olive-colored heart shaped carapace. The turtles are dwellers of the sea but migrate hundreds of kilometers to mate and lay eggs on the sandy beaches of faraway shores. Although disputed by a few, it is widely believed that the females return to the beach of their birth to nest and lay eggs. Some of the beaches around the world are known for the mass nesting of olive ridley turtles; thousands of them can be seen arriving at a particular season and crowding the beach. This is known as 'arribada'. In India, a part of coastal Odisha is known for its arribadas. The phenomenon has received global attention and attracts many visitors. Velas and a few other beaches along Maharashtra's Konkan coast play too host to nesting olive ridleys but here the turtles follow the dispersed or solitary form of nesting, arriving in singles or small groups, their activities going unnoticed by most. This makes it doubly difficult to track and protect the turtles, informs a volunteer.
Usually the female turtles start arriving from November and continue though December. They use their hind flippers to dig into the sand to build the nests. As soon as they hear of the arriving of the turtles, the volunteers of the Mandal set up vigils on the beach. Since the nests are scattered all over the beach, the volunteers carefully dig the eggs out once the females leave and transport them to similar nests built within a specially protected enclosure, said Katdare. The hatchlings start to come out of their shells starting January. Apart from Velas, the nesting can also be seen in beaches such as Maral, Harihareshwar, Kolthare, etc. As the time of the hatching approaches, the volunteers check the nests and release the hatchlings. They are released near the water but on the beach in the hope that they will carry the imprint of the beach and the females will return to build their nests.
Soon the naturalists realized that it is not possible to protect and save the turtles if the local people are not involved. So they hit upon the idea of a Turtle Festival and village tourism.
Sandwiched between the sea and a huge rock wall, Velas is a tiny village populated by agriculturists. Most homes back on to lush green vegetable gardens and coconut groves. The beach, partly hemmed by cliffs, is clean and so lonely that even the seagulls roam free along the water's edge. These formed a perfect backdrop for a lazy getaway for the urban crowd. Local people were roped in and the Kaasav Mitra Mandal (Friends of the Turtle) was formed. These people now offer a night's accommodation and all meals at local homes for a small fee. With a chance to augment their otherwise meager agrarian income, the idea caught on and the people now take interest in protecting the turtles that are drawing a larger crowd every year.
The morning session of the festival over, we returned to our host family for breakfast that consisted of hot and delicious poha and tea. Since the turtles are released twice a day, early morning and just before sunset, in between we had plenty of time to explore this quaint village. There was one long road that ran from one end of the village to other, rounding off at the bus stop and two old temples. So it made driving unnecessary. We could walk around at will. It is said that Marathi statesman Nana Phadnavis' family hailed from Velas; some say he was born here. There was a small memorial marking the homestead and the birthplace. For lunch, our hosts served us typical Marathi vegetarian meals.
Soon it was time to visit the beach once again. It was a lucky day indeed. A few hatchlings were to be released. Influenced by prevailing weather conditions, the time of the nesting can vary from year to year. The hatching can vary from day to day. So do not be surprised if there is no release of turtles for several days. Since hatchlings take about 45 to 60 days to come out, the Mandal provides a list of the tentative days on their website. The gloaming formed a picturesque background and the shutterbugs clicked merrily as the tiny creatures scurried seaward. On the way back, we stopped at the Mandal's office for a film show on the olive ridley turtles and why we need to protect them. A thousand stars twinkled merrily above as we returned to our lodgings for another round of simple but tasty home cooked food.
Velas is nearly 350 km from Mumbai. Starting from Mumbai, one has to turn off the Goa-bound NH17 and take the route via Mhapral, Mandangad and Bankot. Although state government buses go to Velas from Mumbai, Pune and other places, these can be very crowded and uncomfortable for the long journey. For outstation visitors, it is best to take a car along or join a group.
There is no hotel. Visitors put up with local hosts, who are registered with the Kasav Mitra Mandal. Most of the places offer clean but basic and shared accommodation and toilet facilities. It is advisable to carry sleeping bags. The rates are minimal and include one night stay, one breakfast, lunch and dinner (most homes offer vegetarian meal). Carry your personal medicines, mosquito/insect repellants and a torch.
The Festival is organized during the period when the hatching reaches its peak. The official website offers details about Velas and the tentative dates of the festival: http://snmcpn.in/.
(Image by the author)