An ode to the Olive Ridley

Print edition : May 23, 2003

Large mechanised fishing boats pose a serious threat to the survival of Olive Ridley turtles. - SHEKAR DATTATRI

Shekar Dattatri's film on Olive Ridley turtles makes an impassioned call to protect the reptiles from the perils of commercialisation and the threats to the ecosystem.

OLIVE RIDLEY sea turtles have always fascinated wildlife film-maker Shekar Dattatri. Spellbound, he has watched them arrive in their thousands on the Orissa coast during the breeding season, to dig nests and lay eggs. This ritual of the turtles has been going on for millennia. However, in recent decades, these reptiles have been facing fatal threats from various quarters. Attempts to protect them thus far have been half-hearted and, therefore, futile.

Dattatri, with his own resources, decided to make a film to draw the attention of conservationists to the plight of the Olive Ridley. The result was The Ridley's Last Stand, a 45-minute film which recently won an award for Conservation Advocacy at the International Wildlife Film Festival held at Montana, United States.

Returning to the same spot where he had watched the turtles breed after 10 years and finding the situation desperate, Dattatri turns himself into a one-man commission and documents his findings in this extraordinary film. By following the work of two people, Biswajit Mohanty, a conservationist, and Bivash Pandav, a biologist from the Wildlife Institute of India who is working on Olive Ridleys, Dattatri traces the story of the turtles. He finds that the future of the mass nesting of Olive Ridleys on the Orissa coast may be doubtful, though their numbers belie such an eventuality now.

This film is a moving appeal to care for these fascinating reptiles that wander the high seas. It is a personal statement by Dattatri who has been making wildlife films for the past 15 years. So it is with good reason that the off-screen commentary is in the first person. This is also Dattatri's only film so far in which he makes an appearance. He says that of all the wildlife events that he has witnessed, none has captured his imagination as the arrival of hordes of turtles on a narrow island in the sea off the remote beach of Gahirmatha in Orissa. Over a hundred thousand turtles clamber ashore every season to lay about a hundred eggs each. There are only two other places in the world where such mass nesting of sea turtles takes place: in Costa Rica and in Mexico.

The film, which is about Gahirmatha's distinction as one of the largest breeding grounds for Olive Ridleys in the world, quickly narrows down to the factors that threaten the future of these peaceful creatures - such as the predatory tactics of commercial interests that destroy Indian wildlife. Here it is trawling, gill netting and indiscriminate development along the nesting beaches. The large-scale introduction of mechanised boats to improve fishing efficiency, and the misguided action of planting casuarina trees along the coast, ostensibly to reduce the impact of cyclones, have proved ecologically disastrous. These measures, introduced over three decades ago as per the recommendations of well-intentioned Western agencies and accepted implicitly by the local authorities, are proof of the aptness of the old adage that "the path to hell is paved with good intentions".

The film captures the spectacle of the arribada - the arrival of the turtles - in a series of spectacular shots. There is one low-angle, daylight shot in which you see nesting turtles covering the beach for as far as the eye can see. This is a rare sight indeed, because most of the time the mass nesting takes place at night. There are other rare sequences in the film, such as the shots of turtles mating in the sea and dozens of others hopelessly entangled in fishing nets. A few of these shots were generously made available to Dattatri by friends in Orissa who happened to be at the right place at the right time.

One heart-rending sequence is that of hundreds of hatchlings moving in the direction opposite to the sea, fatally drawn towards the lights coming from the nearby highway. But the single image that epitomizes the plight of the turtles is that of a dead Ridley on the beach with two fishing trawlers in the background.

By writing the script and handling the camera, Dattatri retains tight control over the films he makes. He uses all the tools available to a documentary filmmaker - dramatic visuals, title cards, graphics and interviews, all based on a well-researched script. Most of his shots are low-angle, almost at ground level, providing a turtle's perspective - such as the one showing a beach littered with decomposing turtles, even as people pass by taking no notice. Dattatri uses this image to dramatise the total lack of public outcry against this slaughter and the lack of political will to do something about it.

The commentary is terse but packed with information. Supporting the dramatic visuals of the young turtles emerging out of their nests and scrambling towards the sea, the off-screen voice says: "All around us the sand was giving birth." He creates the ambience of the turtle's habitat through a series of visuals - the heaving sea, the wake of a Coast Guard vessel and the waves lapping the shore. The aerial shots from a helicopter further provide a clear idea of the habitat.

A wildlife film-maker works under a number of constraints. He or she cannot shoot a film to a pre-written script but has to take things as they come. Most of the film's structuring is done at the editing table.

The Ridley's Last Stand is a superbly structured film. It documents some of the research done on these reptiles, highlights the power of commercial interests over wildlife and makes a powerful plea to save the turtles, which are so much a part of India's natural heritage.

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