Distribution : Andaman and Nicobar Islands
The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago includes 570 islands and islets across a coastline of nearly 2000 km. It is inhabited by four species of sea turtles including hawksbill, leatherback, green and olive ridley. In historical records, marine turtles have always been mentioned in association with the indigenous people of the islands, since turtles were an important food source for the original inhabitants.
In the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, 33 islands are inhabited and 94 are designated as sanctuaries including six national parks (two of which are marine national parks). Of the 6,408 sq km land area in the Andamans alone, 69% comprises reserves and protected areas; 36% of this is tribal reserve, with two areas and two islands notified as tribal reserves. Settlers from mainland India—a population over 450,000—inhabit the Andaman Islands, while the three original indigenous groups inhabit two small areas and two islands in the Andaman group.
The entire Nicobar group of islands is designated as a tribal reserve; there are four wildlife sanctuaries, three of which extend over entire islands. Great Nicobar Island has two national parks and one wildlife sanctuary; an area of 885 sq km is protected as the Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve.
Surveys and studies conducted in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have recorded India’s best nesting beaches for three species of marine turtles–leatherback, hawksbill and green turtles. The hawksbill and leatherback populations in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are the largest in India and are amongst the most important in the northern Indian Ocean. The leatherback nesting population in Nicobar is one of the few colonies that exceeds 1,000 individuals in the Indo-Pacific; hence, it is considered to be of global importance. The islands also have the best nesting sites for hawksbill turtles as they favour small isolated beaches. The green turtle is the most common and extensive species throughout both island groups with 83 nesting beaches in the Andamans. Although olive ridleys nest mostly on mainland beaches, there is a small mass-nesting site in Middle Andaman that was recently discovered.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands remain poorly explored and understood due to logistical difficulties relating to accessibility, and constraints of time and money which has translated to limited field exploration of the region.
The December 2004 earthquake and tsunami destroyed the coastline and the shore topography was severely altered in many of these islands. The Nicobar group of islands underwent submergence and coastal plates in some of the Andaman Islands were uplifted. This not only destroyed many of the nesting beaches in the region but also resulted in the destruction of the foraging grounds for sea turtles.
Given the current trend towards promoting fisheries and tourism in the region and a combination of poor awareness and sensitivity to conservation issues, these islands are potentially on the cusp of change that could have widespread ecological impacts, particularly to marine turtles and their habitats.
Satish Bhaskar surveyed Little Andaman Islands between 29th December, 1978 and 5th January 1979. During this project of his, he was able to meet and interview Onges, the natives of that island. Satish was known to travel light and always carried just the bare necessities – clothes and bedding. Apart from that, he was always well stocked on biscuit packets. During times when he ran out of food, those biscuits were the only saving grace. In one of his entries, Sathish mentions how he walked for three and a half days on the eight kilometres long west bay, known for its turtle nesting spots. This place was situated at a one and a half days walk from the nearest human presence at the lighthouse construction site. While coming back, he ran into an Onge tribal camp. Nobody was present in the camp but he saw roasted green turtle meat “just begging to be eaten”. He was famished, having survived on biscuits and vitamins for the past four days. He had never had turtle meat before but this was the moment he got a taste of it. To make sure he didn’t invite spears from angry Onges for stealing their food, he left two biscuit packets for them as a gesture of goodwill but mainly to save his skin.
In 2016, Adhith Swaminathan and the Saw brothers (Saw Agu and Saw Thesorow), during a sea turtle survey, chanced upon a letter that drifted onto the shores of Kamorta, in the Nicobar Group of Islands. The letter was written by a Swiss tourist on holiday in Thailand, who dropped the letter in an empty plastic bottle to find out where the currents would take it. He heard from Adhith who found the bottle during a sea turtle survey in the Nicobar Islands fifty days after it had been deployed.
The historical accounts of sea turtles from the Andaman and Nicobar come from British anthropologists and officers stationed in the islands in the 1800s. They are mostly accounts of consumption and hunting by indigenous tribes in the region. Man (1883) and Portman (1899) documented the hunting culture and rituals of the Andaman’s indigenous tribes. Kloss (1902) recorded the presence of turtles in the Nicobar region and also wrote about the turtle skulls that he often found in the Nicobari Huts.
Marine turtles were an important food source for the indigenous tribes who practised subsistence hunting by capturing nesting turtles or hunting them offshore. They also collected turtle eggs, which served as a valuable source of protein. The ban on hunting and harvesting of turtles came into force in 1977 as marine turtles were (and continue to be) protected under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. However, the original inhabitants (the indigenous peoples of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands) are exempt from the Act and the Great Andamanese people still continue to sing turtle hunting songs.
There are no records of status and distribution of sea turtles in this region until the 1970’s. During the late 1970s, Satish Bhaskar conducted the first survey for sea turtles in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. He visited the islands for the first time in 1978 and surveyed the Andaman group of islands and central and Great Nicobar Islands over a period of eight months (Bhaskar 1979a,b).
Bhaskar returned to survey Little Andaman and Great Nicobar Island in 1981 and visited many islands in the Andamans during his visit in 1983 and 1984 (Bhaskar 1981a,b). In the 1900s, he revisited many of these islands and conducted his last few surveys between 1991 and 1995 in South Reef Island, studying and monitoring the hawksbill turtles (Bhaskar 1993a,b,c; Bhaskar 1994a,b,c; Bhaskar 1995a,b,c; Bhaskar 1996). Bhaskar had visited most islands of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago and collected substantial data on marine turtles of the region and much of the data that he collected was published as reports to donors, and a small proportion appeared in journal publications. For a detailed compilation of Bhaskar’s work, see Namboothri et al 2012a.
In 1990, the Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Team (now, the Andaman Nicobar Environment team) (ANET) was established by Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT) at Wandoor, South Andaman and by 1991, several other researchers had also started surveying for sea turtles. Manjula Tiwari visited Great and Little Nicobar and Arjun Sivasundar carried out his master’s dissertation project from Pondicherry University on leatherback nest site selection in Little Andaman Island. By this time the Forest Department also started maintaining hatcheries in North and Middle Andaman, focusing on Cuthbert Bay.
An extensive survey was conducted in Andaman and Nicobar Islands as part of the Government of India-UNDP sea turtle project in 2000. By this time several surveys identified Galathea Bay, Great Nicobar Island, as an important leatherback nesting site. As the nesting site was easily accessible by road from Campbell Bay, ANET established a field station and initiated a monitoring programme. Between 2001-2002, Wildlife Institute of India initiated genetic studies and leatherback turtles were sampled in several nesting sites in Great Nicobar Island (Shanker et al. 2011). With the data collected, it was estimated that about 1000 leatherback turtles nested on Great and Little Nicobar Islands (Andrews and Shanker, 2002).
The 2004 earthquake and tsunami destroyed the nesting beach of Galathea Bay and the field station, leading to the death of the researcher, Ambika Tripathy, who was working on the monitoring project. Saw Agu, who worked in the project as a field assistant with ANET, was the only one who extraordinarily survived (Read his extraordinary tale of survival here – Page 16 of https://www.currentconservation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/CC_3.1.pdf)
After the tsunami, several rapid surveys were conducted in the Andaman group of islands and revealed that the beaches were reforming. In 2007, Manish Chandi and Kartik Shanker conducted a survey in Little Andaman Island and suggested that the beaches had reformed significantly and leatherback nests were encountered in South and West Bay. By January 2008, a collaborative long-term monitoring camp was established in South Bay by Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES), Indian Institute of Science, Dakshin Foundation, ANET, and the Forest Department (Swaminathan et al., 2011). By 2010, Adhith Swaminathan from Dakshin Foundation, joined as a researcher on this project and a monitoring camp was established in West Bay and monitoring efforts have been focused since then. The programme involves monitoring nesting and predation; tagging of female leatherback turtles (clip and PIT tags); genetic studies; monitoring beach and nest temperatures; and beach profiling. From 2010-2014, ten leatherback turtles were tagged with satellite transmitters to plot the migratory route of leatherback turtles nesting in West Bay, Little Andaman Island (Namboothri et al., 2012b).
In 2016, rapid surveys were conducted in Nicobar group of Islands by Adhith Swaminathan on all nesting beaches and potential new beaches that are being used by the four sea turtles found in this region (leatherback, green, olive ridley and hawksbill turtles), with a primary focus on leatherback sea turtles nesting on Great and Little Nicobar Islands. The surveys revealed that the beaches have formed again in these regions and leatherbacks continue to nest in high numbers.
Conservation of marine turtles has been aided by the 1978 notification that declared 94 islands of the Andamans as sanctuaries (which included 30 islands that were confirmed marine turtle nesting sites). The Forest Department has developed management plans with accompanying guidelines and protection forces have been posted in some critical areas. Regular monitoring and patrolling is sometimes very difficult as most islands are remote and logistics require considerable effort.
ANET has been working at various sites in the islands since 1978. It has carried out numerous surveys and studies that have contributed significantly to the knowledge of marine turtles in the islands today. It has been monitoring key nesting beaches and surveying various localities within the Island groups.
The Forest Department has several hatchery programmes in Cuthbert Bay and Karmatang No. 9 in Middle Andaman; Ramnagar, Lamia Bay, Kaipur, and Ross & Smith Island in North Andaman; and a few sites from Galathea to Campbell Bay, Great Nicobar Island. Currently, much of their focus has been on the recently discovered mass nesting site at Cuthbert Bay.
Leatherback hatchlings at West Bay, Little Andaman
Leatherback turtle, West Bay, Little Andaman
Olive ridley, West Bay, Little Andman
Teressa Island, Nicobar
Tillanchong Island, Nicobar
Little Nicobar Island
Chowra Island, Nicobar
Green turtle tracks at Car Nicobar
Green turtle tracks at Little Nicobar
Leatherback hatchling swimming
Key figures in turtle conservation and research in Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Sources and References
Bhaskar, S. 1993c. Andaman and Nicobar sea turtle project. Phase- III. Unpubl.
Shanker, K., B.C. Choudhury and R.K. Aggarwal. 2011. Conservation genetics of marine turtles on the mainland coast of India and offshore islands. Final Project Report. Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad.