In the 1960s, Anne Wright was one of the few prominent people involved in wildlife conservation in India. She was one of the founding trustees of WWF-India in the 1960s and a member of the Tiger Task Force commissioned by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to select tiger reserves for the launch of Project Tiger in 1973. She served on the national board for wildlife for nineteen years and was on the wildlife board for several states including much of Northeast India, West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. She played a little known but crucial role in the drafting of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 in India, by providing a copy of the Kenyan Wildlife Act to Indian bureaucrats in New Delhi who were drafting the Indian Act.

Anne was one of the first to raise the issue of tiger poaching and exports and her activism resulted in the initiation of tiger conservation in the country. She was also the first to observe the huge numbers of sea turtles being sold in the markets of Kolkata and realised its potential to impact the population in near future, which led to conservation action for sea turtles in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the 1980s, Anne Wright was awarded the Order of the Golden Ark and the Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her conservation efforts in India.

Belinda Wright is best known today for her work on tiger conservation and regulating trade in shahtoosh and other wildlife products through her organization, Wildlife Protection Society of India. But she played an important role in sea turtle conservation in India, starting from the time she became aware of the thousands of sea turtle deaths due to trawlers in the Gahirmatha and neighbouring beaches and wrote about the little-known threat from trawlers to highlight the issue. In the late 1990s, Belinda decided to initiate a project for the conservation of sea turtles along with Biswajit Mohanty (Wildlife Society of Orissa), and initiated Operation Kachhapa with support from the U.S based Barbara Delano Foundation. She remains actively involved in campaigns for sea turtle protection in Odisha and is a significant voice for the conservation of endangered species in India.

KS: Hi Belinda and Anne, thanks for agreeing to talk to me for my book on sea turtles. Tell me how you both got involved.

BW: One of the first things I remember is learning about the huge harvesting of turtle eggs that used to happen back then. Do you know the small princely state with those two palaces – one in the middle of Chilika and the other near Bhitarkanika. They were the ones who had the license or the rights to harvest sea turtle eggs.

KS: It was called the Kanika Zamindari.

BW: I met one of the families – it was a brief meeting and I didn’t follow it up. But they’ve got records of those egg collections. And the figures are phenomenal, boatloads of eggs in their millions, and they would collect taxes from local people, per boatload. The soft, ping-pong ball size eggs would then be transported to Calcutta for sale. This was in a passing conversation… and I was just staggered. There were tens of thousands of boatloads of eggs. And they were getting around twelve rupees as tax per boat, which during those days was huge.

(To her mother) Do you remember when you first went to the market in Calcutta? Do you remember any stories about turtle eggs?

AW: No, I don’t. I must say I’ve never heard those details before. But, I do remember that every single day you’d go into the market and there’d be turtles for sale – turtle soup was very popular.

BW: And it was very commonplace. They brought turtles in from West Bengal and Orissa, didn’t they?

AW: By the truckload…

BW: Then they used to put them on the market floor, upside down, to keep them alive and fresh, and hack away at the turtles while they sold the meat.

AW: Yes, they cut them up alive.

KS: Which years would this have been, roughly?

BW: 1960s and very early 1970s. Thankfully, there was a crackdown on that after the Wild Life Protection Act of 1972.

AW: We did raids after I went to Bhitarkanika, when it was not a sanctuary.  I remember going out in a Forest Department boat when a funny thing happened. Out in the middle of nowhere, we saw another boat coming the other way.

BW: Explain how you were in a Forest Department boat.

AW: I was on the Indian Board for Wildlife of eight states, the whole of Northeast India – Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Assam, West Bengal, and the Andamans – for 19 years.

KS: So, when did they form the Indian Board for Wildlife?

AW: In the 1950s, but it never met. It became active after Mrs. Gandhi became the Prime Minister and the Chairman of the Board.

KS: So, the Indian Board for Wildlife existed before the Wild Life Act was passed?

AW: Oh, yes, very much so. Everyone felt our version of the Wild Life Act was fairly useless, and somebody told me said that the Kenyan Wildlife Act was very good. The Kenya polo team was visiting Calcutta, so I wrote to the captain, and said, “Please could you bring a copy of your Act”. And he did! We re-typed it in Calcutta, made a few changes taking out references to Kenya and sent it to Delhi. Some changes were made and it was then sent to the Legal Department.

BW: Mrs. Gandhi was very keen to have a new Act. [To her mum] In fact she told you, “Hurry up, let’s do this quickly.”

KS: That’s a very interesting story. So, you were talking about your first boat trip in Odisha.

AW: Oh yes, I was on a Forest Department  boat and another boat was coming the other way. Out of it popped up this chap with a long beard, long hair – he looked like the old man of the deep! I couldn’t believe it – here I was in the middle of nowhere, and who had appeared out of the boat but the well known turtle expert, Jack Frazier.

There was also a marvelous young Indian boy who was working on the beaches. I was camping on the beaches by myself, in a tent. Suddenly, on a moonlit night, this boy came tearing across the sand, “Come on, come on – the turtles have arrived!” So we both ran. And there we were, amongst a sea of turtles, all emerging out of the water.

KS: So did you both go out to Orissa together?

BW: No, I went out later.

KS: So Belinda, what do you remember about your first time in Orissa?

BW: I first went there after I heard from my mother about the incredible arribada she had seen.

KS: And you’d seen the turtles in the markets?

BW: Oh yes – that’s hard to forget! The first thing I did when I got there was to meet Banka Behary Das. He was then the lone voice in Orissa trying to protect the olive ridleys. As mum would say, it was sort of love at first sight! He genuinely and desperately wanted to do something about the problem, but his life was a strange mix. He was in politics but also deeply interested in the environment. He said “I can give you the information, but you have to do something about it”. The first time I went to meet him, I had a bit of trouble. I started being followed by cops because he was in the opposition party and considered to be quite controversial. I reached his house by jumping into a series of rickshaws.

KS: So this was in Bhubaneswar itself?

BW: Yes, in Bhubaneswar. And because he had political things going on as well, I suddenly became ‘suspect’. That was very uncomfortable. It was in the late 1970s that I went out for the first time with the Forest Department. And what I stumbled upon was the heavy mortality of sea turtles due to hordes of mechanised shrimp trawlers. The problem, which had received little attention at that stage, was in its early days, but was very obvious. I took photographs and started writing about it, under three pseudonyms.

KS: Really?

BW: Yes. I wrote in national newspapers – the main thing they wanted was photographs in the newspapers, and they didn’t have good photographs. It didn’t take long before I was hooked, and I started going there a lot. The best trip I ever had was with Shekar Dattatri and Sanjeev Chadha in March 1992. We witnessed a really, really, colossal arribada. Who knows what the figure was – it was said there were over 100,000 nesting sea turtles.

That was the most memorable of all my visits to Bhitarkanika. It was really wild, camping on Babubali, but trying to get to the nesting beach at Nasi in the dead of night. At first, none of the fishermen would go because the sea was so rough. Experiencing that arribada added a whole new dimension to my life. Watching these giants rising out of the turbulent sea, and then nesting in their thousands with such determination, was unlike anything I have ever experienced. There was an old shipwreck stuck on the beach which added to the drama.

KS: Yeah, Shekar talked a little bit about that trip as well. But, compared to the issues in the 1970s and 1980s, very, broadly, what do you think has changed and what remained the same?

BW: Probably the most important thing is that in the early days – including when I first went there – nobody knew much about it. It wasn’t that it hadn’t been documented by Bustard, or by my mother, but people generally did not know about this miracle on their doorstep. Even in Orissa, it was not an issue, nobody talked about it…they just didn’t know. The idea was to try and get Orissa to be proud of the fact that it had this extraordinary phenomenon on its coast, before it was too late. Secondly, was how quickly the damage from uncontrolled mechanised trawlers became such a huge problem. It escalated to tens of thousands of sea turtles dying from being entangled in the nets, in no time. And the reason that it couldn’t be stopped was purely political… because most of these boats were owned by politicians and bureaucrats.

Of course, communications have improved out of all recognition – now you can quickly phone somebody for information. Communication is the big, big game-changer for everything, including wildlife conservation. Before that, there were no computers and it was all about writing and typing long letters. For people like Banka Behary Das and Billy Arjan Singh everything was letters, letters, letters.

AW: We were writing to people who we thought could do something.

BW: Yes, handwritten or typed letters with just a carbon copy. That’s why there are so few old records.

AW: I first heard of Bhitarkanika because there was a monster crocodile there – it was something like 26 feet long! Everybody wanted to shoot it. And we were thinking “let’s hope that it doesn’t get shot”, but sadly it did, by an Anglo-Indian captain of a ship.

BW: A lot of other things happened in Bhitarkanika. I remember when the Nasi spit broke off in a cyclone in 1988. That was the biggest change – it made a huge difference. It was very confusing for a year or two, because all the areas that we knew as prime turtle nesting beaches, where we used to walk for miles and miles, changed overnight.

In the early days, we used to stay in Ekakula Rest House and then walk from there. But even to get to Ekakula was difficult. But at least you had a roof over your head and you could walk five miles, or whatever, to a nesting beach. Once that channel broke, everything changed.

Dogs, jackals and monitor lizards were a big problem in the early years. But after the Nasi spit broke off we had a few good years. I wouldn’t say they were glorious years – because of the changing tides, there was a huge amount of erosion…you’d see the turtles coming, and think, why on earth are you nesting here? Because often there was nothing, just a big sand dune, with a little vegetation. But at least they didn’t have predators. So, the early years were all to do with predators. During the middle years there were no predators, but other issues at stake. These were the changes I remember.

In those days, a lot of senior forest officers – and certainly bureaucrats – just didn’t understand what it was all about, at all.

AW: You felt like dragging them out there on a moonlit night [laughs], to get them converted. Not easy.

KS: Right. In that sense, I think the discovery of Rushikulya has kind of changed the public perception of it, because Rushikulya is just so much easier to get to.

BW: Yes, there was so little local involvement until the discovery of the Rushikulya turtle nesting site. Of course, the early local stakeholders were turtle egg collectors, which were stopped. Now Rushikulya has an army of local conservationists who have grown up in nearby fishing villages, who clean the nesting beaches, protect the turtles from predators and people, and work with turtle scientists. It’s very inspiring!

KS: That’s right. Thanks again Belinda and Anne for talking about turtles, and for everything you have both done for ridleys in Orissa.