As described earlier, the Rushikulya rookery was unknown to the scientific community before 1994. Local people were knowledgeable about the nesting of turtles, as about 50-60 per cent of the local people are fishermen. Before 1970 local people ate and traded turtle eggs. Local people however never ate turtle meat. Turtle meat was transported to the Kolkata market. After the implementation of the Wild Life Protection Act (WLPA), 1972, it became very difficult for people to transport live turtles and eggs, as sea turtles are included in Schedule I of WLPA. Local people also consider turtles as a religious taboo, since the turtle is considered as one form (avatar) of Lord Vishnu.
In 1990 some local youngsters got involved in a study conducted by a researcher, Dr. Bivash Pandave from Wildlife Institute of India (WII), and were inspired to conserve turtles. They had begun to campaign against use of turtle eggs, trade of eggs and live turtles, and for provision of penalty for use and trade of turtles in WLPA, 1972, among local people. Owing to this awareness and religious beliefs, people stopped consuming eggs and engaging in trade of live turtles. Slowly they developed an attachment to the turtles and started protecting them, their nests and hatchlings. According to the Sarpanch of Purunabandha, ‘People of Rushikulya became more conscious after one particular incident which touched everyone. A live female turtle was being transported to Kolkata by train from Rushikulya when the eggs started dropping from the gravid female. People felt sorry for torturing the sacred animal and slowly stopped consuming eggs of turtles and selling eggs and live turtles. Now different NGOs and the Wildlife Wing also started to work with community, on turtle conservation. In 1998, the Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee was registered by the youth from Purunabandha village. The committee has 27 members, all boys from the village. The committee has now established an interpretation centre with the help of funds donated by some wellwishers. The group was also helped financially by a local NGO called Wild Orissa for some activities. The members of the committee protect the beach and clean it before the hatching season.
After the committee’s recognition in 1994, the forest department has been conducting annual counts of the nests. During the nesting and hatching period about 10-20 youth from the village help the FD with protection of the nesting site. Even those who do not get paid by the department often come forward voluntarily to help with turtle protection. The FD also appoints 3 guards during the nesting period (November-March) from among the local youth. Once the eggs hatch, many community members participate in the process of releasing the hatchlings into the sea.
As mentioned earlier, female turtles have to come on land to lay eggs, where they come in direct contact with humans. Therefore in this phase of life, the turtles require protection. The people in Rushikulya have already stopped consumption and trade of turtle eggs and live turtles. Furthermore about 10-20 youths in each of the four villages (Purunabandha, Palibandha, Gokhurkuda and Nuagaon) are involved with the Wildlife Department in the turtle census and protection during nesting. Earlier this was done voluntarily by local groups; and now in return for this these youth get a honorarium on a daily-wage basis.
For protection of nests, villagers avoid walking on the nesting beach during the hatching period (March-April), so that the eggs are not damaged. At the time of hatching, villagers protect hatchlings from their natural predators and collect disoriented hatchlings to immediately release them in the sea. For this the people discovered a method in which a ‘zero’ net was used to fence the mass nesting area; now the forest department is providing this net along the nesting beaches. The disoriented hatchlings get aggregated on the edges of the net and are collected in the early morning and released in the sea by the volunteer. In this process all the villagers, including women and children, are actively involved in protecting hatchlings.
The community is not only involved in giving protection to turtles on land but is also taking measures to avoid turtle deaths in the sea. Community members have been practicing different norms for fishing during the turtle season, like the use of specific type of nets, types of fishing boats used, assigning fishing zones, and so on. These norms have been developed over last few years by the experts working on turtles along with the local fisherfolk. Ashoka Trust for Research in Environment and Ecology (ATREE), an NGO based in Bangalore, has helped develop one model for fishing in the turtle season in village Gokhurkuda. According to one local conservation activist, the community, especially the fisherfolk community, has to pay the cost for turtle conservation, as in the peak turtle season, turtles break traditional fishing nets, the costs of which are very high for these marginalized people. At the time of nesting, female turtles congregate near the river mouth (estuary region), where they get food and suitable conditions for 10-15 days.
This is a difficult period for the fishermen of Purunabandha, who fish exclusively in the mouth of the river. Since turtles break fishing nets, fishermen have to stop fishing for the period of 10-15 days, which is a heavy loss for them. At the time of hatching too, hatchlings congregate in the river mouth, which also affects local fishery activities. However fishermen are ready to accept this loss in return for turtle conservation, which indicates a deep desire within the people to protect turtles. This may be the reason why out of the three major Olive Ridley mass nesting sites in Orissa, Rushikulya is the only one where mass nesting has occurred in the last four years.
Another reason for fishermen to be able to participate in the protection efforts is the fact that the fishing rights of traditional fishermen are protected in this area. In other areas in Orissa, traditional fisherfolk are under grave threat from the trawl fishing industry, which has depleted the resources on which traditional fisherfolk depend. Due to the depth of the sea in this area, along with the presence of INS Chilika (a naval base) close by, illegal trawling has been controlled here to a certain extent. This gives the traditional fisherfolk a greater stake for conservation of turtles.