Smuggling of rare Olive Ridley turtles by Trains on the rise – RPF/Malda seizes 35 bags containing 1500 Turtles

Smuggling of endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles that are back in Odisha in the season by Railways again noticed. Humans are still the leading threat to Odisha’s endangered Olive Ridley Turtles, despite various laws enacted to curb illegal smuggling!

MALDA TOWN: A total of 35 bags containing nearly 1,500 Olive Ridley tortoises were seized by railway authorities here on Friday. Following a tip off, Railway Protection Force (RPF) carried out a raid and seized the bags. Three people, residence of Uttar Pradesh have been arrested till now in the case.

“We have seized tortoises from 35 bags and counting is still underway. We will let you know the number once it is done. Prima facie, these were brought to Malda town from Sultanpur on way to Gangarampur. We suspected them (accused) due to their activities. We are happy to have arrested three persons in this case,” said R.B. Singh, an RPF officer.

As per reports, the accused were planning to smuggle the tortoises to neighbouring Bangladesh. The RPF handed over all tortoises to the forest department.

“The turtles were kept in 35 bags and were brought to Malda by Down 4004 Anandgarh Express from Pratapgarh in UP,” Sub-inspector of crime intelligence branch, RPF, J S Parihar confirmed.

“The turtles, all blackish in colour weighed between 200 grams and one kilogram,” he said.

Ajay, Suresh and Mahinder, all residents of Sultanpur in UP who brought the turtles from UP to Malda were detained, he said.

RPF sub-inspector R R Singh who was on duty checked the bags out of suspicion and discovered the turtles, he said.

While the turtles were counted and handed over to the officials of state forest department, the miscreants were handed over to English Bazar police station.

The olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), also known as the Pacific ridley sea turtle, is a medium-sized species of sea turtle found in warm and tropical waters, primarily in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The olive ridley is classified as Vulnerable according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), and is listed in Appendix I of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington Convention).

CITES works by subjecting international trade in specimens of selected species to certain controls. All import, export, re-export and introduction from the sea of species covered by the Convention has to be authorized through a licensing system. According to Article IX of the Convention, Management and Scientific Authorities, each Party to the Convention must designate one or more Management Authorities in charge of administering that licensing system and one or more Scientific Authorities to advise them on the effects of trade on the status of CITES-listed species. These listings were largely responsible for halting the large scale commercial exploitation and trade of olive ridley skins.

The turtles, which are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, commence their journey from the Indian Ocean during their mating season in October and November. When they reach the Bay of Bengal, the females lay eggs on the beaches. Even as the destination for a majority is Gahirmatha in Odisha, the sandy stretches of Hope Island of the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary have turned into a breeding area for a few hundred turtles every year.

A female lays 100 to 150 eggs in a pit dug by it carefully and leaves the shore after covering the hollow with sand. Six weeks later, the newly hatched turtles start the journey to their Indian Ocean habitat. Records show 482 turtles laid eggs here in the last year.

“Owners of mechanised boats are not taking precautions to protect the turtles. Most of them are crushed under the boats and succumb to injuries,” said K. Thulsi Rao, State project coordinator of the EGREE Foundation that works to conserve flora and fauna in the sanctuary.

The Fisheries Department tried to encourage the mechanised boat owners to fit a Turtle Excluder Device (TED) to their trawl nets to allow the animals to pass, 10 years ago. Of the 422 boats, few have opted for the device due to lack of sensitisation. “The device is not available in the open market,” said S. Angeli, Deputy Director of the Fisheries department.

The Indian Coast Guard has launched ‘Operation Oliva’ along the sea waters of Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary here as part of its mission to ensure safe mid-sea breeding of Olive Ridley turtles and to intercept intruding fishing vessels.

In a joint effort with the state forest department, the turtle conservation programme is in full swing to keep a vigil on illegal fishing along the turtle concentration zone, Commandant (operation), Deputy Inspector General of Coast Guard, Odisha, Sanjeev Deewan said.

Nearly 40 trawls have been nabbed so far on charge of trespassing into the prohibited sea waters and nearly 250 fishermen have been held for illegal fishing.

The arrested fishermen were handed over to the forest department for prosecution. Last week, as many as 196 fishermen were caught and 24 trawls used by them for fishing were seized, Deewan said.

The Coast Guard has also chalked out a pro-active plan for these marine animals’ conservation with round-the-clock vigil, thereby providing adequate protection to the endangered species, he said.

Besides a ship, the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) has also pressed into service an aircraft for Operation Oliva and is keeping tab on illegal fishing in Gahirmatha marine sanctuary, the DIG said.

The Coast Guard has organised interactive sessions with the fishermen community to sensitise them on the pros and cons of the embargo on fishing during the Ridleys’ nesting season, Deewan said.

“The patrol exercise for surveillance on trespassing sea-worthy trawls is on as turtles perish in large numbers after getting hit by trawl propellers. Besides, breeding animals get entangled in fishing nets and are asphyxiated to death,” he said.

“The coast guard is on alert to check trespassing of vessels. The operation to save turtles is being carried on in a coordinated manner,” he said, adding ICG ship Sarojini Naidu is maintaining round-the-clock vigil along the shoreline.

The Coast Guard patrol in turtle congregation sites would remain in force till the turtles finish laying eggs on nesting beaches, the DIG said.

The Convention on Migratory Species and the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles have also provided olive ridleys with protection, leading to increased conservation and management for this marine turtle. National listings for this species range from Endangered to Threatened, yet enforcing these sanctions on a global scale has been unsuccessful for the most part. Conservation successes for the olive ridley have relied on well-coordinated national programs in combination with local communities and nongovernment organizations, which focused primarily on public outreach and education.

Several projects worldwide seek to preserve the Olive Ridley sea turtle population. For example, in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico, when the turtles come to the beach to lay their eggs, some of them are relocated to a hatchery, where they have a much better chance to survive. If the eggs were left on the beach, they would face many threats such as getting washed away with the tide or getting poached. Once the eggs hatch, the baby turtles are carried to the beach and released.

Another major project, in India involved in preserving the olive ridley sea turtle population was carried out in Chennai, where the Chennai wildlife team collected close to 10,000 Olive Ridley turtle eggs along the Marina coast, of which 8,834 hatchlings were successfully released into the sea in a phased manner.

Historically, the Olive Ridley has been exploited for food, bait, oil, leather, and fertilizer. The meat is not considered a delicacy; the egg, however, is esteemed everywhere. Egg collection is illegal in most of the countries where olive ridleys nest, but these laws are rarely enforced. In most regions, illegal poaching of eggs is considered a major threat to olive ridley populations, thus the practice of allowing legal egg harvests continues to attract criticism from conservationists and sea turtle biologists.