KS: Chandra Sekhar, you have been involved with sea turtle research and conservation in India for over 3 decades. Tell us how it started.
CSK: The government had started a programme with a prime aim to protect the crocodilians – gharials, mugger and saltwater crocodiles – which were on the verge of extinction. Simultaneously, during that survey, it came to be known that Orissa is also a large nesting ground for olive ridley sea turtles; this was already locally known. At that point of time, coastal Orissa was under the zamindari system. They were collecting 64 different types of revenues and one of the revenues was collection of eggs. Hundred percent egg collection was allowed at that time.
KS: How did you get this information? You’ve also written about the andakara, the turtle tax and all that.
CSK: The zamindars were issuing licenses at the time. And after the end of the zamindari in 1951, it passed on to the now defunct Department of Revenue Administration with whom it remained from 1951 to 1957. And finally, in 1957, the licensing was transferred to Forest Department.
KS: Where are those records available?
CSK: Bhitarkanika is the interior of the Kanika Raj, and there’s a palace at Rajkanika. The zamindar was a very learned person. There’s a huge library within, there are a lot of collections, some of which are still there. For example, the largest saltwater crocodile skull, which was in the Guinness Book of World Records, still remains. So, he had an excellent museum and an excellent library at that time.
KS: Who maintains the place now?
CKS: The family still maintains it, but not in the way that the zamindar did. At that time, when we were conducting research, everything was intact. The Forest Department also issued egg collection licenses till the Wild Life Protection Act (1972) was passed and adopted for implementation in the state of Orissa in 1974. So, till 1974, every year, passes were being issued. And these covered many boatload of eggs, which contained on an average 35,000 to 1 lakh eggs.
KS: Right. Those Forest Department records are there?
CSK: It was there, but when it comes to the maintaining of records, the system is not that efficient. But records were there, I have verified all the records. Of course, while passes were being issued legally there was also illegal take.
So, the project started as an integrated crocodile and sea turtle conservation project. In fact, it was not widely known when the wetland conservation programme was being mooted, that the integrated crocodile and sea turtle project in Orissa was the first wetland conservation project in the state and in the country. And the first wildlife sanctuaries which were set up in the state related to the aquatic environment. Like the first sanctuary in Orissa was Bhitarkanika and it was the first National Park in the state as well. The second one was Satkosia which again relates to the River Mahanadi and, along with these, others were being declared as well.
Then, since there were no researchers in the Forest Department, it was decided that they would recruit staff with an MSc, who could do their research and get a PhD and continue working with the department. That’s how we were recruited, leaving a teaching career. And at that time, I remember, the fellowship was Rs. 400 in the University, whereas in this project it was Rs. 500, Rs. 100 extra because we were working in remote areas.
KS: So, initially, you were in the Nandankanan Zoo.
CSK: I joined at Nandankanan and worked there for one year. Then Bob Bustard told me that no one was willing to go to Gahirmatha. So he asked me if I was interested and I readily agreed, I was willing to go anywhere.
KS: When did you see your first mass nesting?
CSK: It was 1976 or 1977.
KS: Because BC [Choudhury] remembers this one occasion where all of you were on the beach and painting the turtles to mark them…that would have been around that time, right?
CSK: The official census started in 1976. It continued for about a decade.
KS: So, in the 1970s itself, there were quite a lot of issues relating to conservation, right? Because the adult take had started to increase then.
CSK: There was not a big concern about the egg exploitation. And to begin with, there was no major adult exploitation either.
KS: Right. So, how did that start?
CSK: There were small fisheries for adult turtles at the time, not for commercial purposes, only for personal use. And whenever there was any accidental capture, turtles were sent to Calcutta by train. All turtles captured along coastal Orissa were sent to the market and onwards to Calcutta. When I was at Nandankanan, the Chief Wildlife Warden’s residence was close to the railway station. We would go to the railway station to record how many turtles were being shipped.
KS: This was in the late 1970s, was it?
CSK: This was 1976 – 1977.
KS: So, then there was not much exploitation at that time…
CSK: It was gathering momentum slowly. The collection of turtles became organized and they started trading them. And we got organized to stop the trade. Then they started selling turtles as fisheries products, which was also detected and stopped. There were many high level meetings between the Forest Departments of West Bengal and Orissa and eventually we stopped the shipping by rail.
Then, the traders started taking turtles from the nearshore coastal waters, from the mating grounds. About 80,000 adult turtles were sent to the Calcutta market for a few years. And that was highlighted when Mrs. Gandhi was the Chairman of the Indian Board for Wildlife. She ordered the Navy and Coast Guard to help in the protection of turtles in offshore waters. At that time, there was no agency to protect the coastal waters in Orissa. She also wrote to JB Patnaik, the Chief Minister at the time, to check on what was happening. And J.B. Patnaik went to Gahirmatha even though there was no accommodation, but he stayed there and announced that fishing would be banned there.
KS: Had you already registered for your PhD?
CSK: I was not registered, but I had started working towards it. It took time for registration, as there were a lot of queries about having a foreigner as a supervisor.
KS: But finally Professor Bustard did supervise your work.
CSK: Yeah, and the second one was Professor MC Dash. I’m the only person who registered under a non-Indian guide. There was lot of resistance from the University to accept a foreigner at that time.
KS: So, your book is a really rich storehouse of information, I keep going back and reading it. One of the things that you’ve talked about, in your last chapter, is how some of the damaged eggs could be utilized. And I was very interested to read that because Dr. Bustard supported sustainable utilization, even though he had recommended that egg exploitation be stopped for some time. So, what was the attitude towards this sustainable utilization of eggs? Was there not a strong resistance to the idea in the 1970s and 1980s in Orissa? Because there is now. What do you think changed?
CSK: At that time, we knew that these eggs are damaged, these are doomed eggs. Even if we take those eggs and incubate under the best possible conditions, the survival possibility is very low, extremely low. So we knew that these eggs were doomed eggs. We had not thought of exploiting the eggs like it is being done in Costa Rica, but those eggs which are already excavated and which are laid in the areas which are prone to erosion, those could be used.
KS: But nobody will accept that today.
CSK: It’s difficult in India where the lobby for conservation is so strong. And how to differentiate between legal and illegal take. We have the best laws when compared other countries. But as far as implementation is concerned, it is the poorest of the poor. So, if we allowed take, can we really regulate it? That is the problem.
KS: Why is the implementation poor?
CSK: Definitely, it’s the resources, but the attitude as well – there are issues with the functioning of the department that is implementing the law, the functioning of the judiciary, and everything. Justice is delayed in all the states.
KS: How can these things be changed?
CSK: We talk about greater public awareness, but we say this in AC halls, in national, international forums. But we don’t work enough at the grassroots level.
KS: And what can be done to change that?
CSK: Attitude and commitment. People say that they are committed, but actually they are not. We need more people with strong commitment and attitude in the field. But if they only want to appear in the international arenas and say that we are doing things, that will not work.
KS: Good point. And how did you discover the mass nesting beach at Devi?
CSK: At that point of time in the early 1980s, I was staying at Habalikatti. There was no habitation in a 50 km radius, no post office in a 50 km radius. Once in 15 days, I used to send one person to post letters. He used to walk 50 km, and cross the river to get to a post office. So, I tried my level best to ensure that Satbhaya, Gupti, Dangmal and other places would have post offices. No books were available, and we were not allowed to come to the University and refer to books. No literature was available. There was no chance to meet my guide even once a year. There were no cell phones, there was no computer, nothing of the sort. There were no mechanized boats, no solar lights, no VHF, nothing. And in those conditions, we spent 365 days in the field. During the entire period of ten to fifteen years, my parents couldn’t visit me in the field. And we were also not allowed also to come out frequently – not to the head office, not even to the regional office.
But I met a person whom I had employed for some temporary job. He informed me that he belonged to a village where there were many nesting turtles. But I made many attempts and couldn’t get there.
KS: So you went there a few times and you didn’t see any turtles?
CSK: I couldn’t get there because the areas were so remote at that time. There was no bus, nothing. So I told him, next season I will go with you if you can guide me.
KS: Do you remember his name?
CSK: He belongs to a village near Devi mouth. I couldn’t get official permission, so I decided to abscond for a few days. I came to Cuttack, then took a bus to the nearest town, then we started walking from about 8AM and we reached the beach in the evening. There was no road, nothing. But we went out at night, and saw nesting and then from the quantum of eggs the next morning, figured that it was a mass nesting beach.
Then Bivash and I went to Rushikulya and met Damburu and others. And I had given him 2 postcards. When I got back, I got a postcard from him that mass nesting had started.
KS: That’s really fantastic that you were involved in discovering 2 of Orissa’s 3 mass nesting beaches. And in the 1970s when you were all working over here, were you also aware of Rom Whitaker and others who were working in Chennai?
CSK: We were aware of Rom Whitaker and others from the very beginning. Because they had also visited Orissa, and had done some surveys. I had also visited Croc Bank. All out of personal interest, though we were not officially allowed to go. This was typically how the system functioned. But we found some way or the other to do the things we wanted to do.
KS: I think that the CMFRI also had an active programme in the mid-1980s. Did they interact with the Forest Department? Was it a collaboration?
CSK: It was not exactly collaboration. Dr. Silas was leading the institute and they independently carried out some surveys. He came to Orissa a number of times and he also invited us to that workshop in Chennai.
KS: Right, in 1984. Chandrasekhar, you’ve been doing both research and conservation of sea turtles in Orissa for 30 years. What are the main challenges for turtle conservation?
CSK: The main challenge is, as you know, is that whatever research we have done and whatever we have learned about turtles, that was restricted to the nesting beach. So, very little was known about their activities, their lifecycle, their biology, in the sea. It was a mystery, still a mystery.
KS: With the ridleys, yeah.
CSK: So, we hardly we know anything about turtles. Whatever we knew is only land based. Sea based work has just started with telemetry but that is not enough. It has to continue on a large scale, where they are during the ‘lost year’ has to be known, the different habitats turtles use during their different developmental stages has to be known. Then we can address the impacts of threats in the ocean as well. How can we address the impacts when we know so little?
And as you know, the impacts are growing day by day in terms of magnitude, in terms of the diversity of impacts, the diversity of activities which we never had in the last century. So that is the challenge for research, that is the challenge for management. Then, we talk about sustainable development. Again, we talk about this in AC halls, national, international forums. And sustainable development is basically anthropocentric sustainable development. The biggest controversy in the world today is sustainability. And how to strike a balance between ecocentric sustainable development and anthropocentric sustainable development is the greatest challenge.
KS: Which part of it is controversial to you?
CSK: Ecocentric and anthropocentric sustainable development are diametrically opposite to each other.
KS: Right. Sustainable for whom is the question.
CSK: That is the difference. Then, when we talk about habitat protection, which habitat? And, if there is climate change, and something is likely to get destroyed in the near future or in a distant future, why invest in that habitat? Whose money is this? And for whom are we doing it?
KS: I think that’s a very deep question that most people wouldn’t have considered…I think neither governments nor conservationists are thinking very deeply about it.
CSK: The biggest problem is ignorance. When we don’t know anything, with our limited knowledge, how can we change things?
KS: Again, that’s a really important question that you are asking, Chandrasekhar. We’ll end on that philosophical note. Thank you very much.
Art Work: Kavya Gupta