Nirmal Kulkarni is a well-known conservationist in Goa, whose fascination with snakes led him to become a snake handler and the unofficial go-to person for reptile emergencies in the neighbourhood when he was a teenager. Nirmal has been Goa’s youngest Hon. Wildlife Warden at 18. Together with Captain Nitin Dhond, who acquired heavily mined and degraded land at Chorla Ghat, Nirmal and his team have restored 800 acres of deforested land and converted it into a diverse private nature conservancy. He is one of the longest-serving members of the State Wildlife Advisory Board of Goa. During a career spanning over 16 years, Nirmal has worked with local communities, researchers, students and government bodies.


KS: Nirmal, can you tell me a little about how the sea turtle conservation programme started in Goa and how it has progressed in the last decade?

NK: The Goa Foundation was founded in 1999. There were reports of sea turtles coming to nest on Morjim beach. At that time, the Conservator of Forests, Richard D’Souza was keenly interested. He took a few volunteers, including me, at night to see what was happening on the beach. This is when we first interacted with Captain Gerard Fernandes, who had an army background. We stayed on the beach and protected any nests we found by covering them with fishing nets.

KS: What were you doing then?

NK: I was in school, and my friend Rahul and I were doing this together. Gerard got about 4-5 volunteers from the village, who were actually fishers. They would help with the night patrolling because we would go just once a week, but they would go every night. Two of those volunteers are still doing it and about six years ago, they were taken on as temporary workers during the season and are now getting paid. For the first four years, there was no money, just patrolling.

KS: What are their names?

NK: There is one guy called Pagi and another called Hanumant — they have been there since this started. Anyway, the next year, around 2000-2001, a lot of nests were destroyed because sand dune vegetation was entering the nest. That was the first year we started removing nests and putting them above the high tide line or away from the sand dunes for protection, in the same area. Before that, nests would simply get destroyed.

When we were in 12th standard, Harvey Dsouza, a fellow wildlife enthusiast who ran a crocodile-watching boat trip company called Southern Birdwing got reports from a local journalist in Galgibag that turtle eggs were being sold there for Rs. 10 a piece. Galgibag is a predominantly catholic community. So, when we first went to Galgibag we saw that someone had actually bought the eggs and kept them in the refrigerator. So, along with Harvey and his partner Neil, we decided to intervene but realized that the threat had the potential to become worse. At that time, the Galgibag beach was free of shacks, one of the main reasons being that there was a very deep trench in the water surrounding it. There was no swimming allowed and hence, there was no tourism.

But the beach was very far away, so we realized that, unlike Morjim, we could not go there every night. Instead, we did a snake awareness programme in the church to reach out to people. It completely failed and very few people came for it. But what happened was that the priest got interested. We requested him to give a sermon at the Sunday mass about conserving turtles and he agreed. I remember the younger generation did not accept it and just walked off. It was the older generation who understood and started patrolling the beach. The priest along with a few elderly people started talking about protecting the nesting area; not so much the beach but just the nest area, specifically using fishing nets to protect nests. There was no talk of conservation as we know it. The priest was later awarded a Citation Award by the Goa Forest Department for his role in convincing the community to protect the nests.

Just after that, there were issues in Morjim because the Forest Department staff changed. There was also some conflict between the department and the local community. At the same time, Galgibag started getting more nests. So the whole focus of protecting turtles shifted from Morjim to Galgibaga because the latter got more nests than the former and the community was easier to approach.

KS: So, when you’re saying that these people started the patrolling out of their own interest, there was no money involved and they were just doing it in their spare time?

NK: There was no money. Things changed when Paresh Parag, the Range Forest Officer of Cotigao, got involved. Paresh got interested because Varad Giri of BNHS surveyed the Goa and Maharashtra coasts in 2001. When he walked that coast, Paresh was on the fringes of getting into the Forest Department. He tried to streamline things. He thought about recording nest temperatures, not moving the nest far away and trying to put in place certain scientific techniques and regulations on what was to be done. The Department then realized that turtles were also nesting in Agonda.

Things changed in Morjim as well. Mandrem Beach, which is near Morjim, has always had sea turtles. But the nesting was sporadic – just one or two nests. The approach road to a large stretch of this beach belonged to Denzel Sequeira, a fashion photographer, who had nothing to do with conservation. However, when he saw a turtle nesting for the first time, he decided that he needed to conserve them. So, he got people from Morjim to talk to people in Mandrem and learn about the relocation of nests. For Denzel and a lot of other people around, the turtle was also the symbol of home. That entire marine ecosystem and sand vegetation was what we wanted to protect on these beaches because the rest of the beaches have been completely taken over by tourism. We wanted to keep these beaches as they were. So, every turtle nest mattered.

Then, the tsunami happened and for quite a bit of time, there was no nesting. It led to government pressure, and all these beaches were almost de-notified as turtle nesting sites. When that happened, a group of individuals, including me, went to the Goa Foundation and Claude filed a writ petition stating that these are turtle nesting beaches and, if turtles are not nesting, then we need to find out why. It also stated that more protection needed to be given rather than denotifying the sites. Fortunately, during that season they nested, and the High Court came down heavily on the government, especially on the high mast lights that the Tourism department was keen to erect. The government gave a written reply that they would not carry out the de-notification and protect the beaches. All that happened before 2010.

After 2010, there was an influx of foreigners into Morjim, Mandrem and Ashwem areas. It led to a trend of night parties on the beach with loud music, very close to where the turtles used to nest. A lot of garbage was also produced in the region and the shacks would dump this indiscriminately. We keep all this data and last year we also did a photo documentation of the entire area and submitted it to the High Court. The Court passed orders against these activities.

Another issue was that of encroachment. Shack owners would keep 100-200 deck-beds on the beach and turtles were known to nest in the deck-bed area. So, we got them to vacate the mouth of the river and away from areas where there was nesting. This conflict is still ongoing because the beaches are under the Tourism Department and not with the Forest Department.

KS: But they have been declared as CRZ-I?

NK: Yes, they have been declared as CRZ-I—Galgibaga, Mandrem and Morjim.

KS: But that doesn’t count?

NK: No, what happens is that, even if it is CRZ-I, if there is a road passing through, the area landward of the road is not protected. 

KS: Right. So, you also talked briefly about the conflict in 2004 sort of leading to the forest hut being burned.

NK: At one point in time, the turtle conservation efforts in Morjim were highlighted as a community initiative. However, it was a small group of fishing communities who were involved in the conservation. The entire village of Morjim had various castes, religions, and cultures, and those involved were a very small part of the community from the lower economic strata. When the Forest Department came in, they wanted to take charge of the situation.  The community felt let down because about 4 or 5 of them were promised permanent staff status on the beaches, but instead, they were given temporary staff appointments for 4-5 months during the turtle nesting season and there was no work otherwise. The turtle nesting time overlaps with the fishing months, so the fishers had to give up their actual work to participate in conservation efforts. In the monsoon when there is a ban on fishing, they don’t get any income.

In the meantime, shack owners also instigated the community telling them that they were causing problems. They claimed they were getting affected because the deck beds were becoming an issue on the nesting beach. This conflict led to the burning of the turtle hut; there was also a large hoarding which said that this was a turtle nesting site that was also burnt.

So for about a year or two, there was conflict over this. Till then, the Centre for Environment Education had 2 turtle melas there. There were also about 8-10 schools where talks were being given and turtle clubs were formed. CEE had also brought out a book on turtles in Goa, a small booklet.

KS: I have read in Roshni Kutty’s (Kalpavriksh) report about how Captain Fernandes started this programme in the 1990s and that several people helped him: a couple of bricklayers, Domeo D’Silva and Prakash Sapthaji; and a couple of fishermen, Dominic and Gilbert Fernandes. Were these people still involved when you visited?

NK: Yeah, they were all with the fishing community.

KS: Are some of them still involved?

NK: Yes, Domeo is still involved. So is Capt. Fernandes off and on and of course Claude and a few others.

KS:  That was interesting.

NK: At a national level, it seemed like this was a major community initiative, including children. At the local level, we knew that it was not entirely a community thing – it was just that at the right time, at the right places, there were people who got together and were keeping these 4 or 5 communities involved.

KS: So, why do you think that happened?

NK: One reason was that the Goa Foundation, Dr Claude Alvarez and others, along with a DCF, CA Reddy IFS, wanted it that way; in their mind, they wanted the community to be involved and they wanted to take it further. I think there was more community initiative in Galgibag, where the elders chose to actually protect turtles and keep the sanctity of the entire area by focusing on the turtles with the help of the church.

KS: Yeah, I think that was partly it. But I also feel, looking at it from the outside, that an organization like Kalpavriksh (KV) documenting it and giving it publicity also played a part.

NK: I went there with some of them when they came during the first field visit. I took them across the whole stretch of the beach. But the whole focus, as you rightly said, was that somebody wanted it to be looked at as a community initiative. Agonda though was entirely the effort of the forest department. In Mandrem, it came about because of a lot of individual efforts.

KS: That’s reasonable diversity within Goa itself. It’s kind of ironic to me in a way that all of this goes on completely disconnected from Satish Bhaskar who has lived here for more than a decade. In a sense, if one looks at the timeline, it might very well have started around the time that he moved there, after retiring actively from his own work. He did his last surveys in 1996 and 1997 and then he moved to Goa and stopped working on sea turtles and hasn’t been involved in any of the work here.

Anyway, thank you, Nirmal, this gives us a nice background to turtle conservation in Goa. It was a pleasure chatting with you.  

[This interview was conducted in Goa in January 2013].