One of the wonders of the lockdown was the manner in which nature became suddenly visible and even managed to regenerate itself. Olive ridley sea turtles nesting on Maharashtra’s beaches have benefitted greatly from the lack of human presence during the lockdown. Due to high footfalls of local people and tourists, olive ridley turtles have nested only sporadically in Maharashtra’s beaches, mainly in Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts.
Forest Department data shows that in 2020-21, the number of nests were 475, with 50,799 eggs and 23,706 hatchings. Compare this with 2019-20 when there were 228 nesting sites, with 27,254 eggs and 12,149 hatchings. In 2018-19, there were 233 nesting sites with 23,131 eggs and 12,601 hatchings. The data from the 2020-21 lockdown period proves yet again that the greatest impediment to the environment is human activity.
With fewer humans on the beaches, the turtle nests were safe from other predators such as dogs whose population seemed to have thinned out along with the humans, possibly because the scraps they used to feed off were no longer available.
The Forest Department has an education programme for locals to assist in olive ridley conservation. Once nesting sites are identified, a garden fencing net is erected to protect the eggs from predators and poachers. When the hatchlings appear, the nets are removed and volunteers either assist the tiny turtles to the sea or stand by and ensure that no harm comes to them.
The olive ridley is listed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (amended 1991). The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed it as Vulnerable. It is also protected under the Migratory Species Convention and the Convention of International Trade on Wildlife Flora and Fauna (CITES). Indeed, all five species of sea turtles found in India are protected species.
Interestingly, they are on the protected species list not because of low numbers but because they nest in a very limited number of places. They are known for their unique mass nesting sites, referred to as arribadas (in Spanish this means “arrival by sea”), where thousands of female turtles gather to lay eggs. It is this focussed nesting behaviour that makes the olive ridleys vulnerable. Any disruption of nesting sites can have serious repercussions on their population. They are actually among the most abundant of sea turtles, but a decline in nesting sites the world over has shown the start of a decline in their numbers. The turtle gets its name from the olive colour of its carapace, or shell, though the origin of the second half of its name, ridley, is not yet clearly understood.