It’s among the most iconic images of wildlife filmography. The sight of thousands of baby turtles slowly crawling from their eggshells and moving towards the sea. The Olive Ridley Turtle has become a household name thanks to the dramatic footage of its annual hatching exodus – which locals call Arribada meaning ‘arrival’.
Barring the shores of Europe and Russia, there are few countries which the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle does not visit in a year. You can distinguish them from their endangered cousins, the Kemp’s Ridley turtle, by their olive-coloured carapace (the top portion of its shell) and light green underbellies. These are the smallest and most abundant sea turtles in the world, with nesting sites on five continents.
Despite an impressive range, they are ranked as a vulnerable species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. These turtles are hunted extensively, and while the males roam far and wide, the females tend to return to their original nesting sites to give birth. As a consequence, nearly half the global population resides in the Indian state of Orissa each year. The world’s largest nesting site is on Orissa’s coastline, near the mouth of the river Rushikulya.
It’s on the Gahirmatha beach, a notified wildlife sanctuary, that over 200,000 turtles hatched in a single week this year. If one is to include the other hatching sites near the river, the tally for 2017 is 380,000 baby hatchlings – a record, if ever there was one. It’s as many as have died in the last three decades. But conservation remains fraught, as only one in a thousand will survive the journey back into the ocean – be it from predators, the waves or humans themselves. Thousands of turtles are killed each year – some years, you can even see beaches filled with carcasses. The turtle reaches sexual maturity at the age of 15; surviving till which is no easy matter in the modern marine ecosystem.
The Olive Ridley’s large numbers and geographic spread notwithstanding, the turtle’s conservation depends on our ability to regulate the commercial exploitation of marine resources. Studying the endangerment and conservation of the Olive Ridley Turtle can teach us a lot about our role in altering the marine ecosystem.
As of 2015, human begins had contributed more than 5.25 trillion pieces of marine trash to the ocean. These pieces can be especially fatal to turtles, such as this horrific video of a straw being extracted from a Ridley turtle’s nostril demonstrates. The turtles often can’t distinguish plastic waste from its natural food. In the case of the straw, it suffered greatly after trying to throw it up – with the straw getting caught in its nasal cavity.
Fishing is a major threat to these turtles, who are easily caught in the large nets. But they are also especially hunted for their eggs and skin. Across the world, regulatory attempts are underway to prevent the turtles from being caught by fishermen.
In India, the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) has launched Operation Kacchapa, to patrol non-fishing zones and monitor whether legal protections are being enforced. Part of their awareness campaign included a pair of minstrels, who composed and sang songs in the local language (Oriya) on turtle conservation in over 160 villages. The World Wildlife Forum (WWF) also works with fishermen and government to protect the mass nesting sites at Rushikalya.
But conservation at net level depends on incorporating practises and technologies such as Turtle Excluder Devices (TED) – which are basically holes in fishing nets that allow only turtles to escape. It’s a move that’s sometimes unpopular with fishermen, who fear their catch will reduce as a result – but WWF has disputed this claim. Studies conducted by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administraion fond that TEDs could reduce sea turtle capture by up to 97 percent. In the late 1990s, U.S. regulations made it mandatory for nations that export shrimp to the country to utilize such devices. In Malaysia and Australia, they’ve been used with success.
The right legislation with the right implementation can prove an effective conservation tool. In India, turtle fishing was banned from 1977, on the application of the 1971 Wildlife Protection Act. This ended the illegal trade of turtle eggs and spelt hope for India’s five species of turtle that inhabit its coastal waters.
Since the Olive Ridley turtle spans so many continents, it has a variety of predators, including racoons, coyotes, crabs, iguanas and hawks. One interesting one is the Jaguar – who have been known to hunt it in South America. They may be the only animal capable of biting through the turtle’s hard shell.
While there is an effort to tackle the intentional poaching of the Olive Ridley turtle, unintentional consequences are also responsible for a large death toll – that of Ghost nets. These are abandoned fishing nets that are responsible for the deaths of millions of marine creatures every year. In the Maldives, these nets have primarily killed Olive Ridley turtles. The Olive Ridley Project focuses on tracking and removing these nets; maintaining a personalized log of the turtles they rescued from them.
Why conserve turtles? Because many of the methods used here – building community awareness, declaring wildlife sanctuaries, reducing ghost nets and overfishing – can have positive effects on other populations as well.
Awareness, in particular, is made possible by virtue of the turtle’s inherent cuteness. Videos are wont to go viral, a fact the Orissa government noted when, in 2013, they announced plans to live-stream the annual mass hatching. There was one glitch though – the presence of nearby facilities barred them from installing their own transmitter. To save the stream, India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) stepped in with the necessary technology. Such concern for turtle conservation does not take place across the board, as moving South along the coast, DRDO is also involved in testing missiles near Olive Ridley hatch sites.
The odds against an Olive Ridley hatchling are great. It faces a dizzying array of predators, from microbes in the sand to human beings and their missiles; the world’s smallest turtle faces some of the largest adversaries possible. A global creature, its conservation will reflect our ability to disseminate global knowledge and best practises in reducing the human impact on it. For now, cleaning the trash from our oceans will remain the top priority – not just for the Olive Ridley turtle but for all marine life.
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