Distribution : Maharashtra

Nesting species:

(unconfirmed)

Non-nesting species: leatherback (rare), hawksbill (rare)

Overview:

Maharashtra has a coastline of 720km. Olive ridley is the most commonly occurring species with sporadic nesting sites all along the coast. They are seen along the coast throughout the year and are frequently entangled in fishing nets.

Green turtles sightings have been reported along the entire coast but their nesting is unconfirmed; sightings are mostly described around the rocky areas where they feed on algae. Leatherbacks and hawksbills are not very commonly found in the region but have been observed by trawler workers in the sea.

Interesting story:

In 1981, a note published in MFIS states the capture of a hawksbill turtle in a drift near Elephanta caves in Mumbai. The turtle was brought alive to Trombay, and held in captivity in a fisherman’s house, who regarded the capture of the turtle as auspicious. He labelled it as “Sea God” and duly worshipped it by the offering of rice and vermillion. The turtle declined this unfamiliar diet and was released a few days after capture.

History

Records of sea turtles from 1980 onwards have clearly indicated the nesting of olive ridley and green turtles on the coast along with occasional captures of hawksbill and leatherback turtles in the Maharashtra coast.

Early records of sea turtles on this coast have been published by scientists from the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), in the Marine Fisheries Information Service (MFIS). JP Karbhari from the Bombay Research Centre and his colleagues documented and reported stranding of dead turtles including leatherback, olive ridley and green turtles along the Maharashtra coast in MFIS through 1980s to 1990s.

Kafeel Shaikh, District Conservator of Forests (DCF) of Thane carried out a survey of the coast interviewing fishermen and specimen collectors of the Fisheries Department, and by visiting nesting sites. He presented his account of this survey in a CMFRI conference in 1984 providing details of nesting sites of green and olive ridley turtles in Raigad, Ratnagiri and Thane districts. A large number of green turtle nests were recorded in suburbs of Mumbai in some of the highly populated areas like Chowpatti, Malabar hill, etc. Some of the threats that he documented were consumption of eggs, which were made into omelettes or cakes with coconut milk, jaggery and sugar. Only the yolk was used for human consumption, and the egg whites were fed to cattle. Along much of the coast, egg collection was carried out not by fishers, but by tribals and other inland communities (Shaikh 1984). Shaikh also published notes on nesting observed at Velas, which later became a centre of sea turtle conservation in the state.

In 1992, Vishwas (Bhau) Katdare and colleagues began the Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra (SNM) at Chiplun, Ratnagiri. Their activities centred around education and awareness programmes and bird surveys on the coast. In 2002, while walking on the beach at Velas one of the groups encountered a nesting sea turtle. Later that year a voluntees noticed more turtle tracks during their surveys for white bellied sea eagles and this initiated a sea turtle conservation project.

In 2001, Varad Giri from Bombay Natural History Society found an unusual turtle carapace while surveying the Maharashtra coast. He sent an image of it for identification to the experts causing confusion amongst them as to which species it was. Experts speculated that it may have been a hybrid but due to lack of samples for DNA analysis nothing could be concluded. It was later identified as a green turtle with scute abnormalities (Shanker 2001).

Research

The first note was published in 1981 documenting the capture of a hawksbill turtle in a drift net near Elephanta caves, south of Mumbai.  However, CMFRI recorded nests and hatchlings near their field centre in 1989 . The CMFRI field centres in Maharashtra meticulously documented all the sea turtle records in MFIS. A list of these records is provided in an article by CMFRI scientists from the Mumbai Research Centre in IOTN in 2009.

In 2000-01, Varad Giri from the Bombay Natural History Society conducted a systematic survey of coastal Maharashtra as a part of the Government of India- UNDP sea turtle project. Giri and his colleagues covered over 60 localities across all five coastal districts and documented widespread nesting of olive ridleys between November and February and to a lesser extent, green turtles.  More often, green turtles were observed at sea particularly near rocky areas, or caught accidentally in fishing nets. Giri documented several carapaces of green turtles, including juveniles, particularly near villages in southern Maharashtra. Dead ridleys and an occasional hawksbill were also encountered. Sea turtles were largely released when caught in nets, but the meat was consumed in some districts such as Ratnagiri. Following this in 2002, Katdare and colleagues collected information about sea turtles and discovered that there were a fair number of ridleys nesting in Velas. They observed that unlike other villages in Maharashtra, there was no killing of adults here, just collection of eggs.

In 2005, Aditya Kakodkar, from the Shivaji University in Kolhapur, conducted a brief study of the perceptions of local communities about sea turtles in Sindhudurg. He also encountered mostly olive ridleys, and a few green turtles, and one dead leatherback. Unlike Giri, Kakodkar found widespread consumption of turtle meat in Sindhudurg. His interviews revealed that close to half of the respondents consumed turtle meat or eggs, though they were aware of the legal protection of these animals (Kakodkar 2006).

In 2009, Sanaye and Pawar of the Fisheries College in Ratnagiri, reported of turtle eggs being sold in the market at a rate of Rs.2-5. The meat was consumed because of superstition about benefits in treating bone disorders but not sold in the open markets due to the awareness of the law. Illegal gill nets, trawl fishing, and entanglement in ghost nets of lobster traps in rocky regions were identified as main factors for increase in turtle mortality.

Conservation

Many organizations have contributed to the study of status of sea turtles on Maharashtra coast amongst which CMFRI, BNHS and SNM along with the Forest Department have played a prime role in sea turtle conservation of Maharashtra. SNM has played a major role in developing ecotourism based conservation initiative on the coast.

In 1996 Katdare and colleagues started surveying the coast of Maharashtra. SNM played a pivotal role in launching sea turtle protection programme and have been successfully implementing it across many other villages with the help of local communities. Katdare got in touch with Kartik Shanker of the Indian Institute of Sciences and Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) in Chennai who had been actively involved in sea turtle conservation on Tamil Nadu coast to develop a plan for conservation of sea turtles in Mahrashtra. In late 2002, SNM formally initiated their sea turtle programme. Given the distance of Velas from their headquarters, Katdare realised that the support of the local community would be crucial for this operation to work. The community was sceptical at first but they were gradually swayed by the commitment of this group that would return time and again to talk to them about sea turtles and their importance. Eventually, supported by the village headman, one person was appointed to monitor the beach and paid an honorarium by SNM. 50 nests were translocated during the first season (December 2002- February 2003), and about 2700 hatchlings released.

They expanded the turtle conservation programme in 15 different villages north and south of Velas. Their persistence in involving the communities gained them massive local support to carry out their programmes. They instituted a ‘Kasav Mitra Puraskar’ (Turtle Friend Award) in 2004. Following this initiative they conducted a turtle festival which included screening of films, awareness programmes and other activities to publicise Velas as nesting site to attract tourists interested in conservation activities. They formed a group called ‘Kasav Mitra Mandal’ (Friends of the Turtle) in the village to take a lead in the day to day conservation activities and organise the turtle festival once in a year. Here the village benefited by providing accommodation to tourists who attend the festival and visit the nesting sites while the members set aside 10% of their total income during the festival for marine turtle conservation in Velas.

With some media publicity, the support for sea turtle conservation started to grow. SNM then started expanding their programme along the Maharashtra coast. As in Velas, people were unaware of the law and there was resistance to conservation in many villages.  SNM started by co-opting the egg poachers, and assuring them a small monthly income if they protected the nests instead of selling the eggs. By the time Varad Giri had carried out the second survey as part of the CMS project, SNM was well known and Giri was able to collaborate with them and support their work.

Anjarle beach

Photo: Nupur Kale

Velas beach

Photo: Nupur Kale

Mirya beach

Photo: Nupur Kale

Malvan beach

Photo: Nupur Kale

Velas beach

Photo: Nupur Kale
Key figures in sea turtle research and conservation in Maharashtra

Varad Giri

Vishwas (Bhau) Katdare

Mohan Upadhye