A half-moon casts a pale light over a desolate beach on the western coast of India. A ripple breaks the gently lapping waters as an olive-ridley turtle emerges from the sea. She scouts the sandy beach, clumsily crawling back and forth,  till she finally settles on a spot, laboriously excavates a deep, flask-like hole, and over the next hour, lays over a hundred eggs. Deftly using her flippers, she fills up the nest with sand, and, thumping  her body up and down in a near comical ‘dance’ to seal, and secure her eggs, she crawls back into the waves…

Swiftly, the Forest Department moves in and with the help of volunteers, barricades and secures the nest, and puts up a board announcing,’Olive Ridley Nest No 1, 2-olive ridley goa-nirmal11-12, Mandrem’.

It’s the first turtle to hit the beach in Goa this year!

For about 50 days, until the hatchlings emerge,  the ‘turtle guards’ and the forest staff will continue their vigil 24×7––protecting the eggs from dogs  or a shack or some such ‘temporary’ structure, all of which could destroy the nest. A more insidious threat, however, is the intent–backed by the powerful real estate lobby–to destroy nests to wipe out the evidence of its existence so that Mandrem beach ceases to be a ‘turtle nesting beach’, leaving the coast clear for tourism infrastructure, and other development.

Goa has a coastline of about 105 km; 65 km of this is sandy beach, inherently suitable for sea turtles to nest. Olive rideys (Lepidochelys oivacea) have been nesting here since eons, but their numbers have declined sharply  as their nesting sites vanished–razed and bulldozed to make way for hotels, resorts, shacks, and other tourism structures.

Most Goa aficionados know  the popular beaches of Calungute, Baga and Anjuna as party hotspots. Old residents remember them otherwise, and  recall the times when the turtles came in great numbers, arriving as autumn turned into winter. The turtle is revered as the harbinger of good fortune, and if caught in a net was usually let off after a ritualistic prayer and vermilion plastered on its shell. But equally,  turtles were also killed for their meat, a delicacy commanding a good price, as did the eggs. The turtles survived this onslaught. They also gained legal protection in the 1970s, but the killing did not stop… even if it waned.

Then, the turtle faced another body blow.

The ‘70s saw the  tourism boom and within a decade,  the industry was growing at about 25% annually. Today the number of visitors––Goa saw over 27 lakh visitors last year––far exceeds the local population of 14.5 lakhs (2011 census). With no strategy or facilities to cope with such massive influx, the social, cultural and ecological fabric of this tiny coastal paradise began to corrode. On tourism’s heels followed issues of garbage, pollution, traffic, drugs. The worst hit were the beaches––with shacks, stalls, hotels, resorts, and sand mining altering the once pristine coastline. There was simply no room for the turtles to nest–and the ridley numbers dwindled, and then simply vanished from many of the beaches…

Urged on by concerned NGOs and conservationists, in 1996, the Goa Forest Department, established  the Turtle Protection Programme and initiated patrolling of nesting beaches during ‘turtle season’, protection of nests,  awareness programmes that sensitised and enlisted local communities, etc. This saw the return of the ridleys. In 2000-01, 30 nests in  Morjim in the north, and 33 in Galgibag in Goa’s southern tip were located and protected.

The protection programme is ongoing and turtles continue to nest, but the odds have gotten worse.

With the entire coastline ‘developed’ , nesting turtles are now confined to barely 10 per cent of the coast across four beaches: Mandrem, Morjim, Galgibag and Agonda. These have been declared eco-sensitive beaches by the Goa Coastal Regulation Zone which has restricted and regulated setting up of temporary structures, sounds and lights. Unfortunately, much of this regulation remains on paper, and these ‘pristine’ beaches have attracted hotels, restaurants, cafes, shacks, shops and other such structures.

October heralds the ‘tourist season’,  which coincides with the turtle mating and nesting period, and yet illegal shacks, bath beds and cafes line the shore. These tightly packed illegal structures leave little room for a turtle or her nest. Garbage litters the beach and parties cause havoc through the night. Such activities especially endanger turtle hatchlings who are extremely sensitive to artificial lighting. Even the faintest light  can disorient them enough to prevent them entering the sea and instead, head landwards–to certain death. Adults also depend on light cues for directional orientation.

As serious as these threats are, the turtles of Morjim are up against a more complex issue. Morjim has been taken over by Russian ‘tourists’, so much so that it’s dubbed ‘Little Russia’. Police sources state that the Russian mafia is using the former Portuguese colony, particularly Morjim and its surrounds, as a base for money-laundering, arms and drug-trafficking.  Real estate price have shot up. A high crime rate, prostitution, rave parties  proliferate –and the pristine fishing village and turtle nesting beach is now a dope and trafficking hub.  and in this  murky world, turtles are mere hurdles, best gotten rid of.

However, there is a ray of hope. The new government elected last year has ushered in change. Many believe that Chief Minister Manohar Parikar has the political will and the wisdom to bring in sustainable tourism that protects the ecology, livelihood and the culture of the state. Serious efforts to rein in development along these beaches by bringing in stricter regulations governing shacks and other disturbances are underway.

But much needs to be done if we are to ensure the turtles a safe haven. As an immediate measure, Turtle Nesting Beaches and mouths of rivers where turtles nest  must be brought under the purview of the Forest Department and notified as Conservation Reserves. Vulnerable stretches within these areas must be identified and protected. Sound and light pollution need to be curbed and these beaches must be patrolled jointly by the forest department and the police. Local communities need to be sensitized and be involved in a different tourism model that showcases the natural and cultural heritage of Goa.

The olive ridley turtle is an ancient mariner travelling thousands of miles every year, to nest on the same beach where it was born. The turtles are Goa’s oldest tourists…surely, we won’t deny them a safe refuge?

First published in The Pioneer, January 2013

Pic courtesy: Nirmal Kulkarni