Odisha’s ‘Turtle Man’s’ Efforts Help Rare Olive Ridley Breed
Sea turtle hatchlings make their way to sea at Rushikulya beach beach in Odisha.
Sea turtle hatchlings make their way to sea at Rushikulya beach beach in Odisha.(Photo: Reuters)

Odisha’s ‘Turtle Man’s’ Efforts Help Rare Olive Ridley Breed

For the last 25 years, Rabindranath Sahu from Purunabandha village in Odisha’s Ganjam district, has been working tirelessly to provide the best possible hospitality to his ‘guests.’ His guests are special; they visit only once a year, between February second week and March, at midnight. Not just Sahu, the three villages along the Rushikulya river — Podampeta, Puruna Bandha and Gokharkuda — look forward to, and celebrate the arrival of these ‘guests.’

(Photo: Tazeen Qureshy / The Quint)

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Coastal Odisha’s ‘Special Guests’

“It is already time,” says a fisherwomen in Odia, gesturing towards the direction from which these guests are expected to arrive.

“Be careful though, don’t use flash lights, or else they might get disturbed,” she cautions.

In the middle of the pitch-dark beach, Rabindranath Sahu, or ‘Rabi bhai,’ as he is popularly called, is shouting out last-minute instructions to a group of youngsters who work in an NGO.

“We are expecting more than four lakh guests this year,” Sahu says, with a palpable excitement in his voice.

These special ‘guests’ are the endangered Olive Ridley turtles that flock to the Rushikulya river, along the Odisha coast every year, making the state one of the world’s largest mass nesting sites of the species.

“These are not just turtles for us, they are Lord Vishnu’s avatar. You must have heard that story about how Lord Vishnu helped deities in defeating demons, by incarnating the ‘Kurma’ or the tortoise avatar. ‘Tortoise’ and ‘turtle’ might be from different classification families, but they are reptiles after all,” says Sahu.

(Photo: Tazeen Qureshy / The Quint)

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From Stealing to Protecting Turtle Eggs

In a rare show of community level programmes in the country, the three villages along the Odisha coast, are spearheading the conservation of endangered Olive Ridleys, with Sahu taking the lead.

It started in 1994, when Sahu visited the Rushikulya river mouth with a scientist. Little did he know that a casual walk along the beach at night would give his life new meaning and purpose.

All the villagers in the area were aware of the ‘mass nesting’ ritual of the turtles. However, we didn’t know that they were endangered and must be protected. Every morning, after the turtles would venture back into the sea after laying eggs, we would go and collect it. The eggs were free and available in plenty and we would either sell them or simply eat them.
Rabindranath Sahu

He goes on to add, “Once, when I visited the beach at night with scientist Dr Pandav, I saw the nesting of around 30,000 Olive Ridley turtles simultaneously. Never before had I seen so many of them together. Instantly, I felt a connection with them and realised we had made a mistake by taking away their eggs.”

(Photo: Tazeen Qureshy / The Quint)

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Hurdles Sahu Had to Cross

When Sahu started the conservation work, he was mocked at by the villagers, who refused to give up on the extra bucks they were earning by selling turtle eggs.

I was only a student when I took up the cause. But I had pledged my life to the turtles the day I saw their mass nesting ritual. From that day on, I would turn up at the beach every evening during nesting time, and stay there till late morning. Being a teenager, the villagers would not pay heed to my words, and fight with me. It took almost six years to convince the villagers to stop the practice.
Rabindranath Sahu

Since then, Sahu has taken on this work full-time, even refusing to get married for the sake of these turtles.

“If I get married, I will have to give the majority of my time to family. But the cause that I have taken up requires much more attention, and I will not be able to do justice to my work if I get married. Though my mother used to pester me a lot initially, she has finally understood my work and doesn’t complain anymore,” says Sahu, who lives with his mother.

(Photo: Tazeen Qureshy / The Quint)

A Lifetime Commitment

To make a living, Sahu works in a dairy farm for 20 days a month, and on different wildlife projects to earn a living. He uses a portion of his salary for sustaining his household, and uses the rest of the amount to run his NGO ‘Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee,’ which now has 56 members.

“Neither the villagers nor I get any monetary benefit for protecting these species. But, we still do it as we respect them,” says Sahu.

The mating period of the turtles starts around November, and the nesting begins around February. The hatching occurs 45 to 50 days after the nesting process. During this time, the entire area along the coast is declared a no-fishing zone, and big trawlers are banned entry into the sea.

“The mass nesting mostly takes place for 10 days. So during that phase, we completely ban fishing and stay at home. Although during the non-fishing days it becomes difficult to sustain ourselves, but we do it for the turtles,” says Rao, a fisherman in Podampeta village.

(Photo: Tazeen Qureshy / The Quint)

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The conservation of Olive Ridley turtles has not only given them a purpose in life, but also a lot of public attention.

A lot of wildlife enthusiasts also come here and are astonished to see the kind of work we are doing. In fact, now the turtles seem to have understood that they won’t be harmed here, so they also, at times, lay eggs near a house. The village belongs to them as much as it belongs to us. 
Rabindranath Sahu

The conservation methods have yielded good results, and there has been a rise in the number of the endangered Olive Ridley turtles that flock to the beach every year. Though Gahirmatha and the mouth of river Devi are other places in the state where nesting occurs, Rushikulya registers a record number of mass nesting every year.

In fact, the popularity of Olive Ridley turtles is so high that it prompted the Odisha Government to announce them as the mascot for all the international sporting events taking place in Odisha.
Rabindranath Sahu (R) receives an award for his efforts in wildlife conservation.
Rabindranath Sahu (R) receives an award for his efforts in wildlife conservation.
(Photo: Tazeen Qureshy / The Quint)

Sahu’s Conservation Efforts

With only 30,000 in 1994, today, there are almost four lakh turtles visiting the beach for nesting every year. This year 4,27,000 turtles had come for nesting, which is a record. 
Rabindranath Sahu

The nesting ends in March, and the hatching process begins after 45-50 days. However, despite all the efforts towards conservation, the turtle death rate is still high.

The hatching success is 90 to 95 percent, but the survival rate is only 1 in 1,000. The main reason behind such low survival rate is beach erosion.
Rabindranath Sahu

He goes on to say, “Though this is a no-fishing zone, some trawlers from neighbouring states and other districts of Odisha at times, enter the area, which is a serious threat. Earlier, around 10,000 turtles used to die due to illegal fishing; the number has now come down to around 5,000-6,000. Many baby turtles also die after getting disoriented due to light pollution from nearby factory and townships.”

Now, Sahu, who has also begun working for the conservation of dolphins, migratory birds and other rare species, wants more wildlife awareness, and is holding campaigns with school children regularly. He also celebrates ‘World Turtle Day’ on 23 May every year, which he calls ‘Turtles’ birthday,’ and distributes chocolates among children.

“I have dedicated my life towards protecting wildlife. Now, I am also working to create awareness on other endangered species. But, I simple love the Olive Ridley turtles. I keep waiting for them every year to arrive. They are my friends. I will not be able to tolerate any wrongdoing towards these turtles,” says Sahu.

(Tazeen Qureshy is a freelance journalist based in Bhubaneswar. She has worked with national media houses such NDTV and India Today. She can be reached at @TazeenQureshy.)

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