Bivash Pandav started studying sea turtles in Odisha as a researcher at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, in 1993. He was the first to research on and report thousands of increasing ridley deaths that occurred as incidental catch in trawl fishing from the early 1990s onwards in Gahirmatha and neighbouring beaches, which brought media attention to the olive ridley conservation. During that time, the WII’s programme in Odisha, steered by Bivash Pandav and BC Choudhury, led to the discovery of the mass nesting site at Rushikulya. As part of his doctoral research, Bivash tagged over 1500 mating pairs (for the first time in India) and 10,000 nesting turtles. Tagged turtles from this effort have been recovered from the coastal waters of Sri Lanka, indicating their migration to and from the Odisha coast.
KS: We’ve known each other for a long time, but tell me the story of how you got interested in sea turtles.
BP: It started like this. When I was working in Bhitarkanika on monitor lizards doing my Master’s dissertation, mass nesting started in Gahirmatha. The DFO who was there at the time, Mr. Naik said, “Let’s go and see the mass nesting”. And it so happened, that Chandra Sekhar Kar was also there.
KS: Which year was this?
BP: This was in January, 1993. That night I landed in Nasi Island, it was filled with this thumping sound. That was the first experience of sea turtles for me – hearing that sound…
KS: You went from Dangmal, is it?
BP: I went from Dangmal. We landed there in the middle of the night, saw lots of turtles and came back. We were sitting in the Ekakula rest house eating hilsa fry when Chandra Sekhar told me, “Bivash, let’s quickly do a survey of sea turtle nesting beaches along the coast. Sea turtles are nesting across the coast, and we still don’t know what is happening to the nesting beaches in Orissa.” I was very worried because I had another three – four months of field work and I had to lay my transects and look for monitor lizards. So, I said, “No, I don’t have the time. I can’t think about it now”.
I came back to Dehradun sometime in April or May and submitted my thesis in June. Then, BC [Choudhary] asked me what I wanted to do. I said that I had no plans at the moment but, after a couple of days, I went back and told him that I wanted to work on sea turtles. I still had no clue what exactly I could do on sea turtles, but at the back of my mind I remembered that Chandra Sekhar had said it would be interesting to do a survey of sea turtle nesting beaches. But when I told BC, he tried to dissuade me from it saying, “Forget about working in Orissa, it’s very complicated. They won’t allow you to work there.” Anyway, I also forgot about it.
As you know, we have a Research Advisory Committee [RAC] at the Wildlife Institute of India, which reviews all the research proposals. Once your proposal is ‘okayed’ by them, you get money for your project. So, just a day before the RAC meeting was about to take place, B.C. calls me and says, “Hey, you were talking about the sea turtle survey proposal, what happened to it?” I said that since you never showed any interest, nothing has happened, I have not worked on it. So he told me to quickly go and write something and get back to him. I sat that night and wrote a couple of pages and the next day I gave it to him. But apparently anything that you want to put up has to go into the agenda notes of the meeting, so there was no time and the proposal was not presented at the meeting that year. Then BC spoke of this to Mr. Panwar – the Director and he asked “How much money does that boy need?” I had written the proposal for some 17,000 to 20,000 Rupees. The major expenditure was for a bicycle, which was 1,200 or 1,400 Rupees, my fellowship was 800 Rupees per month. Mr. Panwar said “Ok, don’t worry, no need to put up this proposal to the RAC, ask that boy to go to Orissa, I’ll take care of the money”. So, that’s how I landed up in Orissa and started the survey.
After landing in Orissa, I was just flipping through a local newspaper called Samaj – and in the front page there was a quarter page advertisement by the Department of Sports and Youth Services, or Youth Affairs, that they were organising a trek as part of the Konark festival from Konark to Gopalpur, which is roughly around a 250 kilometer walk. So, I thought that was a fantastic opportunity for me to get to know the coast. A senior police officer was the Director of Sports and Youth Services in Orissa. I went and met him and told him that I was from the Wildlife Institute of India and that I was supposed to do a survey, and asked if I could join the trek. He said that there was no problem and I started walking with those people. We walked the stretch over a period of six days or so. That walk was very crucial for me because it gave me the confidence to walk along the coast. After completing that stretch, I started going to different parts of Orissa coast and, during the course of the six month survey, I walked the entire coast twice, and I bicycled it thrice with my Hero Ranger – a 1200 Rupee bicycle! During the course of that survey, we found that a lot of turtles were nesting in Rushikulya. Then I came back to Wildlife Institute, wrote up the report, and told BC again that I was very keen to continue the work, although I had very little clue of what exactly needed to be done.
KS: So, was that the year that you discovered the nesting beach?
BP: Yes, March of 1993. That’s when we recorded nesting in Rushikulya.
KS: And when you say you cycled, this was all within a couple of months or so, was it?
BP: All within six months. But primarily November, December, January, February. It was in those four months, because after February it’s too hot in Orissa. Also, beach erosion takes place and it becomes very difficult to cycle or even walk. So, it was primarily between November and February.
KS: So how did you get across the big river mouths and stuff?
BP: There was absolutely no planning. At big river mouths you just sit there, you come across a fishing boat, you wave at him, he comes, and then you go. Basically, you have a lot of free time on your hands and there was no hurry. And then, I never carried any food with me. Every time I saw a fishing camp I would go and ask them for some fish. You don’t even have to pay them – I hope the same thing prevails nowadays – you just get some fish from them, and collect some Casuarina leaves, burn it, get some onion and salt from them and rub it on the burnt fish or roasted fish, eat it and then dream about a soft drink. Whether Coke was famous or not, I don’t know, but Thums Up was very famous in Orissa. So I always kept thinking, “Ok, after about 25 – 30 kilometers, at that village I’ll get a bottle of Thums Up [laughs].” That was the main driving force behind walking or cycling – that if I can cover this 25 – 30 kilometers today, I can have a bottle of Thums Up! So, that’s how it started.
KS: So, was that also the year that you met Dhambru at Rushikulya?
BP: It so happened that Chandra Sekhar and I went to Rushikulya together by scooter. We went to Prayagi first. That evening, we were sitting near the fish landing centre near the mouth of the Rushikulya river, and that fish landing centre never became functional. Ever since it was constructed, nobody has landed fish there. So, we were sitting there one evening when we saw two fishermen landing their boat and walking past us. So, I called them and we asked them about turtle nesting. They said, yes, lot of turtles come and nest here during February – March. We were carrying self-addressed postcards and we left the postcards with them. Those two fellows happened to be Dhambru Behera and his cousin. We spent the night at the centre and left the next morning.
After about a month or so, Chandra Sekhar gets a telegram from Dhambru that lot of turtles were coming up to nest near their village. So, Chandra Sekhar immediately calls me up.
KS: You were in Dehradun by now?
BP: No, I was in Bhubaneswar doing a survey. Mobile phones were not around, so he was calling the landline number at home, but I was not there. So, when I returned after two – three days, my parents informed me that there was a call, and I went and met Chandra Sekhar and he showed me the telegram. That very same day, I rushed to Ganjam, to Purnabandha village. I tracked Dhambru down, and he took me to the beach. They showed me a lot of predated nests, the entire beach was full of predated eggshells and I was two hundred percent sure that major nesting had taken place. Although we didn’t see any turtle nesting there because we went a week after mass nesting got over, we kept an eye on hatching. There was massive, very large scale hatching and this confirmed that it was a major nesting beach.
KS: But from your conversations with Dhambru and others, do they have any memory of how long the mass nesting had been going on at that beach? Any more people there who have any stories about that?
BP: The villagers say that turtles have always nested there. But from what I have seen in Rushikulya, based on my observation of the last 15 – 20 years, the nesting has actually increased. And the nesting duration has also increased. All through my work in Orissa, only once I have seen mass nesting in Rushikulya, because I used to be in Gahirmatha, on the island. Whenever mass nesting starts, Dhambru would come to Ekakula and signal with a torch. If any of us were awake, we’d see the torchlight, and depending on the tide, we’d come to Ekakula. So by the time I got to Rushikulya – it normally used to take 24 hours – nesting would be over. It never used to take place for more than two to three days. People do talk about nesting, but they don’t talk about the massive nesting that is taking place now. If there had been such large scale nesting in the past, people would have known. Or at least they would have had some vague idea. It would have not remained completely unknown.
And now, you have four, five days, even six days of nesting taking place there, which never happened earlier. I must have witnessed mass nesting at Rushikulya twice. By the time I got there, there used to be a few thousand turtles, for two to three days.
KS: The arribadas at Rushikulya are very large now. For the last two – three years, we’ve been estimating over 100,000 turtles. This year – I don’t know if you heard – there was simultaneous nesting in Gahirmatha and Rushikulya, which is the first time that there is any record of that.
BP: Yeah, it never happened.
KS: Anyway, we were talking about how you discovered Rushikulya. So, after that you went back to WII?
BP: Yeah, after that I went back to WII and told BC that we needed to continue this work. Now that we have come across a new nesting beach, we should try to monitor it. So BC agreed and asked me to write a proposal. I wanted 5-6 lakh Rupees to buy tags for turtles. But I was told that putting a tag on a sea turtle is like throwing 6 lakh Rupees into the sea; there is no point in tagging turtles. So, I never got money from the Institute to tag turtles, but I got a little money – a few lakh Rupees – to start the programme. So, I came back to Orissa for the first couple of years, just travelling around the coast, counting dead turtles, observing nesting turtles – where they were nesting, and so on. The work was not very systematic – the initial two years. I would say that I somewhat wasted those two years, but I did familiarize myself with the area and the animals. But I didn’t have enough funds to work independently. I was totally dependent on the Forest Department for my travel and my stay. In Gahirmatha, I didn’t have a motor boat, I didn’t have assistants, I was on my own.
Then by sheer accident or coincidence, I met two ladies in Gahirmatha. I decided to approach them and talk to them and one of them happened to be from Norway. They were there because NORAD [Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation] was starting a project with the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation on mangrove restoration. They had come out for a field visit to explore possibilities. I told them about how I had not been able to obtain tags for my project, and one of them asked me to meet one of their colleagues in Bhubaneshwar, who offered to channel the funds through MSSRF. Suddenly, after a few months, I hear that 35,000 tags have arrived at the US Embassy in Delhi. Besides that, they also gave me money to establish camps and to hire more people as well as boats to carry out the tagging operations.
KS: Christmas came early that year, right! Which year was this?
BP: This was in 1996, sometime in August. All the groundwork was done in March – April 1996. By September we had the tags in Delhi. The codes for the tags were ‘WG’ for Gahirmatha and ‘WR’ for Rushikulya. From December 1996 onwards, we started tagging turtles.
KS: And that’s when you established the camps?
BP: Yeah. Gahirmatha, Devi River, Rushikulya, Agarnasi, and at Chilika mouth. So, five tagging sites along the coast.
KS: Who were your main staff at those camps in 1996?
BP: I was in Gahirmatha, Basudev Tripathy was at Rushikulya, and another youngster was at Agarnasi (at first) and he then moved to Chilika mouth. And there were others at Devi mouth.
KS: And your field team in Gahirmatha, you had Subhash and Kalia right from the beginning?
BP: Yeah, right from the beginning. From 1996 onwards, we had Subhash, Kalia, Madhu, and others. I had five – six staff at Gahirmatha.
KS: And who was at Devi?
BP: In Devi, I had Tuku [Sovakar Behera], Bichi [Bichitrananda Biswal], and Bishnu.
KS: So, Bichi was there from the beginning. He must have been very small.
BP: Bichi was a small boy. He was not working with us officially; he would go to school and join us in the evening for the night walks. And help count dead turtles.
In Devi mouth, we got the news of turtle nesting in 1997. We were camping at the sand spit near the river mouth and the nesting occurred on a small island north of the mouth. That night, I remember, was the first time I saw mass nesting in Devi mouth.
KS: Was that the last time mass nesting occurred in Devi mouth?
BP: I don’t know, actually. I strongly suspect that there is quite a bit of nesting in Devi mouth and no one is documenting it.
KS: Maybe on some of the sand spits, yeah.
BP: Normally, nesting takes place north of the river mouth. There are small islands – they form and then they disappear, and hardly anyone goes there. People who are camped at Devi mouth are restricted to that stretch between Devi mouth and Kadua mouth. If you check the northern part of Devi mouth regularly, you may come across nesting.
KS: I’m not very familiar with what areas are being monitored. But compared to all the areas in Orissa, the highest fishing pressure is probably off Devi mouth.
BP: The offshore congregations are quite large. Unfortunately, again, we have very little information. We have had so many camps, so many people working in Devi mouth, but none of them have done a good job.
KS: Unfortunately, since Operation Kachhapa decreased their operations, we don’t even have a very good mortality figure for the Devi coast.
BP: And a lot of mortality takes place there.
KS: But I think the mortality has remained very high in that area, and has probably also gone down in other areas. Or, if mortality hasn’t decreased, I think it has at least stabilized.
BP: But having said that, we also don’t have very good monitoring of dead turtles. And a lot of dead turtles, especially along Devi and Gahirmatha, are actively buried by the Department – you’re not counting all the turtles that are washed ashore.
And more than tagging in Orissa, what is most important is to find out where nesting is taking place. I mean, we need to monitor the whole coast every year, thoroughly.
KS: And not just the nesting beaches. You know, ever since you finished your work, I have been saying that the offshore congregations are not only in three areas. There are probably many congregations which we have not detected. So we have to survey the whole coast once and see where all the congregations are.
Anyway, you said that you started the camps in 1996 and then started the tagging programme. What’s most interesting to me is when I visited, you had that triangular net, right? So, when you went out there and got the boat for the first time, you didn’t have any idea how to catch the turtles. Why did you want to catch the turtles in the water? Where did that idea come from?
BP: Along the Orissa coast, we get a cyclonic storm around late October – early November. It happens in April – May and October – November. Immediately after a storm, I was riding my bike along the Gahirmatha coast, and I saw something very shiny in the breakers. So, I picked up my binoculars, and it turned out to be a mating pair of turtles. That was my first sighting of a mating pair. By then, I had spread the word locally, in Gupti, that I was looking for a boat. There were very few mechanized boats available in those days, so I spread word saying whoever wants to lend his boat for six months should come and meet me at the Ekakula rest house. The next day Subhash came with his boat and the first thing I asked him was, “Subhash, is this boat seaworthy? Can it go into the sea?” And he assured me that it could. The moment the high tide came, Subhash, Kalia (my assistant) and I got into the boat. The moment we crossed the river mouth and entered the bay, it was full of mating pairs. And my next question to Kalia was, “Kalia, can we catch mating pairs?” He said, “Yes sir, we can catch mating pairs.”
We came back in the afternoon and by the next morning the trap was ready – the triangular trap. Kalia had made it. He got some fishing net – multifilament fishing net – and tied it and the next day we went into the sea. On that day, from morning to evening, we caught four or five mating pairs. And we tagged and released them. By the time I finished my mating pair tagging operations in February 1997, I was catching more than 30 mating pairs per day. So, we started with four or five and within two – three months we were catching nearly 30 mating pairs a day.
KS: Yeah, that really struck me as a remarkable little innovation.
BP: And that was the only way we could have tagged a male turtle. Otherwise, there was very little opportunity to catch a male turtle and tag it.
KS: And you also caught some male turtles multiple times, right?
BP: Yes, they were very active. I’ve got to look at my notebook, but if I clearly remember, some 27 or 28 seconds after being tagged and released, I caught the male turtle mating with another female. There were a lot of accusations that I was disturbing the sex life of turtles. But I had all this data to prove that I was actually not disturbing them much [laughs].
KS: I think that there’s enough scientific proof that male turtles cannot be stopped by any force of nature.
So, from the tagging itself, I think you were the first one to record the same turtles going back and forth between mass nesting beaches, right? What are the other really interesting things, in your mind, that came out of the tagging?
BP: Actually, the most exciting moment was, after finishing the exercise in 1997, I came back to Dehradun, and BC gives me a letter from Sri Lanka. It’s written in Tamil, and it says “22 nautical miles off Kalmunai, turtle bearing tag number so-and-so has been captured on April 27, 1997. And this turtle was tagged during the mass nesting in Devi river mouth on March 13. So, 44 days after being tagged, this turtle was captured, roughly around 2000 kilometers as the crow flies from Devi river mouth, in Kalmunai in Sri Lanka. That was actually the first and most exciting information that came out of our tagging programme – our first long distance recovery.
Then, the second most interesting thing we found was that turtles tagged at Rushikulya were turning up at Devi river mouth, and turtles tagged at Devi river mouth were nesting in Gahirmatha, and turtles tagged in Gahirmatha were turning up for nesting in Rushikulya. So, a lot of inter beach movement was taking place within the season as well as between seasons. So, that was also very interesting because it got me thinking that we should not simply add up the turtle numbers of Devi mouth, Gahirmatha and Rushikulya and say that the Orissa coast has 300,000, 400,000 or 500,000 turtles. Rather, we need to look at it more carefully …whether this beach exchange is very frequent among all the turtles, or if only few turtles do it; what is the proportion of turtles moving between beaches? But one thing was clear, they were certainly moving between the beaches and using more than one beach – both within and between seasons.
The other interesting aspect of the tagging programme was the offshore tagging – we got to tag around 1,600 or 1,700 odd male turtles, which would have been impossible if we hadn’t caught them in the offshore waters. We got to know more about the offshore congregation and started looking at the nature and extent of these congregations. So, I think the tagging programme…just the sheer fact that we went and caught mating pairs and found that turtles are congregating in these areas was a very interesting outcome of the tagging study.
KS: Oh, absolutely. You’ve also mentioned several times that your impression is that the male turtles would arrive first.
BP: This is again based on the fact that when I was catching mating pairs, in the beginning of the season – November and the first half of December – I used to catch a lot of triplets and quadruplets. So there would be two males holding on to one female or three males holding on to one female. As the season progressed, you get normal male-female pairs, you hardly get any triplets or quadruplets. I remember I even once caught a quintuplet – four males holding on to one female. So early in the season you would get these unusual triplets or quadruplets, but after mid-December you started getting just male-female pairs.
And the other thing is, when we started looking at our dead turtle data, we found that in the early part of the season, more male turtles were washed ashore with few females. And then as the season progressed, there were fewer males, and by the month of March you rarely got males. So those were the few things that led me to believe that males arrive before females. Based on the sex ratio of dead turtles getting washed ashore, we presume that after the mating season gets over in January, males return to their feeding ground while the females stay on to nest.
KS: I wonder why the males would arrive early.
BP: Don’t know. Needs to be studied.
KS: So, you did most of your PhD work around 1996 and 1999. And that’s around the time that I arrived in Orissa as well. You were the one who publicized all the mortality and raised the alarm about it. How do you remember that period? Not so much in terms of the turtles but in terms of the people – who were the others who helped you or made sea turtle conservation in Orissa come to light in the late 1990s and early 2000s?
BP: I think one person who has till date remained an unsung hero is Naik. Very few people know about his contribution. He was the DFO when I started my work there in Bhitarkanika. And I remember a particular evening when I was coming from Satbhaya to Ekakula, the entire beach was dotted with dead turtles. I came back and wrote a very frustrated note, all in capital letters saying that I have counted so many dead turtles and that it’s a shame that so many were being killed and no action was being taken. You probably can trace it in the Ekakula register. Naik read my note in the register, and instead of suppressing it, he called Chitta Behera from Project Swarajya, who was active in turtle conservation in those days. So, Chitta Behera came and video graphed the dead turtles lying on the beach, and that was publicized. A lot of newspaper articles came out about turtles being killed in such large numbers along the Gahirmatha coast. I too was systematically monitoring mortality along different parts of the coast and by the time I finished my work, my team and I had physically counted over 46,000 dead turtles – in fact I remember the number clearly, 46,219. We might have missed many more. It was over a period of seven years – 1993 to 1999.
The fact that the DFO accepted that a lot of turtles were being killed and allowed the media to cover the whole issue is unthinkable today. The basic reaction of managers is often to hide the fact that there is mortality. He had the courage to go out to the public, go out to the press and highlight this problem. So, I would say that was the turning point where our focus actually shifted from mass nesting of turtles in Orissa to mass mortality of turtles in Orissa. In those days, when S.K. Patnaik was the Chief Wildlife Warden, I used to write letters to him regularly – once in fifteen days – about how many dead turtles we had counted along the coast. And I used to get responses from him as well. Although not much changed on the ground, the government was responsive. They weren’t turning a blind eye to it. They did accept that mortality was a big problem and they had faith in the figures which we provided. I think that resulted in a lot of meetings at the government level and they started patrolling the coast along with the Coast Guard. It is a different story that patrolling was not very effective, but that can always be changed. As long as there is willingness to patrol and you’re willing to accept the fact that fisheries-related mortality is a problem, you can address it.
KS: True. And I know that a lot of people don’t agree with me, but I don’t think it’s any longer the biggest issue for turtles in Orissa. If the beaches get destroyed by ports and other development, I think those are bigger problems for the moment.
BP: Yeah. Things have changed. These issues are very, very different at the moment.
KS: One other person that I wanted to ask you about is Rabi [Rabindranath Sahu] at Rushikulya. How did Rabi get involved in sea turtle conservation?
BP: Well, Rabi was one of the prominent characters in the village. It started with Dhambru, Mohana and another cousin of his – Gauranga.
KS: I remember him from when I visited.
BP: I started working there with the three of them. When I started the tagging programme, Rabi got involved in it. Rabi and other boys from the village used to accompany me and go on night walks, looking for nesting turtles. I never called them. They used to come on their own, with their torchlights and walk for three, four hours. Some of them slept on the beach, some of them went back. I had a tent pitched on the beach, so some of them slept inside the tent as well. When I started the tagging programme, Rabi started working with me and tagging turtles.
KS: Yeah, we retained many of the staff who worked with you in our current monitoring programme. These people have experience and skill which is irreplaceable.
BP: And they are genuinely interested.
KS: Indeed. But, going one step further back from where we started, had you heard of sea turtles when you were a school or college student in Orissa?
BP: I heard about sea turtles first from Sushil Dutta when I was in my Bachelor’s programme. He came to our college and gave a lecture on the herpetofauna of Orissa.
KS: Did you grow up anywhere on the coast?
BP: I was always 50 – 60 kilometres away from the coast. I never grew up along the coast. But we used to read about turtle nesting in local newspapers. But, that’s all – that they used to come once or twice in a year, not more than that. But turtles were never a regular feature at all.
So when Sushil came and gave a talk, that’s when I first saw pictures of mass nesting and got to know a little bit about turtles. But honestly, if I hadn’t started my work on monitor lizards, and gone to Gahirmatha that night of the mass nesting and if I hadn’t eaten those hilsa fish with Chandra Sekhar, and if Chandra Sekhar hadn’t suggested the idea of doing this survey of sea turtle nesting beaches, things would have taken a different course.
KS: Yeah, I think all these things start with chance events.
BP: And BC gave great support in getting the work started.
KS: Thanks Bivash. Great to hear about your adventures with sea turtles on the Orissa coast.