Rushikulya Rookery

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 Location  Ecosystem Type    Conservation Type    Area(hectare)  Legal status 
 Ganjam, Orissa  Coastal  Species Protection  NA  Not Available

Case Study (2009)


In the winter of 2005-06, one of us saw several hundred thousand waterbirds and waders in the wetland around Mangalajodi. Two of the ex-hunters who rowed us through the marshes proudly gave us the names of the birds (in English and Oriya), and explained their motivation for protecting the birds. A part of it was ethical (they had earlier sworn by the Chilika lake deity, Maa Kalijai, not to harm nature), part was pride in being able to harbour such a spectacular assemblage of birds, and a part was the hope that visiting birdwatchers would bring some income their way. Mangalajodi’s villagers, the NGO Wild Orissa, and the Orissa Forest Department are now trying to see if this initiative could spread to neighbouring villages, which would help spread a ring of protection around Chilika.

Rushikulya rookery is one of the examples where the community is playing crucial role in conservation of Olive Ridley sea turtles. The Rushikulya sea turtle rookery came to the knowledge of the scientific community in 1994, when the Wildlife Institute of India discovered this place as the third largest rookery for Olive Ridley sea turtle nesting. The rookery is situated on the sand-pit of Rushikulya estuary near Ganjam. The fisherfolk from Purunabandha, Palibandha, Gokhurkuda and Nuagaon are entirely dependent on the estuary and the offshore waters for their livelihood.

Now Rushikulya is becoming famous due to effective conservation of Olive Ridley turtles by communities, and the degradation of other two major turtle congregation areas—Devi and Gahirmatha—where mass nesting is rarely taking place due to massive killing of turtles by illegal fishing activities. Thus the people at Rushikulya play a vital role in protecting this globally threatened species.

Though there are various natural enemies of Ridleys, like jackals (Canis aureus), kites, gulls, crows, dogs, etc., there are also other menaces like predation upon turtle eggs and hatchlings and other natural causes like delayed mass nesting, high waves, heavy rain, strong winds and erosion of nesting beaches that destroy thousands of eggs each year. However, Olive Ridleys are now endangered because of human activities like uncontrolled fishing and destructive developmental activities along coastal areas. Ridleys are also a Schedule I species according to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Between 1960 and 1970 there was an organized trade of live turtles and their eggs. This trade was brought to an end because of conscious efforts of the Wildlife Department and the support of other related departments. In the mid-70s trade became more difficult due to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, whereby trade in live turtles and their body parts was made a punishable offence. However the scenario now is different. The present causes of concern are:

• Marine fishing-related incidental mortality: Thousands of Olive Ridleys are washed ashore along the Orissa coast every year, which is the single greatest cause for declining sea turtle population. Orissa coast is becoming a mass graveyard of Ridleys, indicating that these fabulous guests of Orissa migrate thousands of kilometres to die. Since the last 13 years, more than 1,27,000 turtles have been found dead on the coast of Orissa and as per experts’ estimates 2,50,000 have been washed out into the sea during this period. These deaths are attributed to illegal exploitative fishing activities by trawls and gill-netters. Being air-breathing animals, the turtles are unable to breathe under water. In most cases, turtles get trapped in trawler nets and drown to death. The Turtle Excluder Device (TED) enables them to escape if they are trapped accidentally. But not a single fishing trawler in Orissa uses TEDs, though they are legally bound to use them. Hundreds of turtles get entangled in floating gill-nets laid by gill net fishing boats and die after a tough struggle. There are incidents in which the death toll due to entanglement in a single gill-net is as high as 1500. The illegal fishing in turtle congregation areas in the turtle season leads to massive turtle mortality.

• Bright lights from buildings in villages, towns, roads, highways, lighthouses and houses along the coast disorient the hatchlings, which lose their way: instead of entering the sea they go towards the land and die.

• Plantations along the coastline destroy nesting beaches, especially casuarina (Casuarina equistifolia) plantations raised by the forest department along the coast of Orissa to reduce the impact of cyclones.

• Coastal pollution by industries and coastal cities.

• Various destructive activities like sand mining, coastal aquaculture, etc.

• Upcoming projects like oil refineries and port construction are posing a major threat by destroying major nesting grounds of Olive Ridleys.

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.

As explained earlier, Rushikulya rookery is becoming one of the vital sites for Olive Ridley conservation. The protection given to this species at Rushikulya is therefore contributing immensely towards the long-term survival of this endangered species.

However, one question remains: what is the community getting in return? Mr. Rao, secretary of the Jiva Sanrakshk Samitee, Gokhurkuda, says that turtles feed upon jellyfish. Since jellyfish feed upon shrimp and fish hatchlings, where there are turtles there are ample fish, and turtle conservation is consequently beneficial to fisherfolk. Besides, the community has now developed a symbolic relationship with the Ridleys, and the outside world relates their area to the turtles, which they are proud of. Such pride is intensified by their village featuring on television, radio and newspapers because of their efforts at turtle conservation.


Regular visits to the site by scientists and tourists, along with being featured on TV, has enthused the village community to extend protection to the nesting turtles. They also see it as a major opportunity and hope that this will create some local employment because of increased ecotourism to the site. However, they have so far not received much support on this from the FD, which is officially in charge of the turtle conservation in the area. In fact, one big hotel worked out a tourism programme for Rushikulya but kept the village and the villagers out of it. The package included bringing the tourists to the site, showing them turtles and taking them back to the hotel, without any financial or other benefits trickling to the community. This was vehemently opposed by the local people and was consequently shelved by the hotel. Villagers are disappointed that there have been no efforts so far to develop a similar plan with them by anyone, be it NGOs or commercial set-ups. The FD prohibits local youth from entertaining tourists. They do not facilitate any regulated eco-tourism programme in which the youth could take an active participation without affecting the safety of the turtles.


One of the major threats to the turtles that come here to nest is the trawl fishing (as explained in Box 1). Trawlers have resulted in the death of hundreds of turtles every year along the coast of Orissa. Traditional fishing in this area ranges from simple boats to mechanized boats, but these are known not to harm the turtles to the extent that the trawlers do. The Orissa Marine Fisheries Regulation Act, 1982 (OMFRA), along with the Orissa Marine Fisheries Regulation Rules, 1983, sets sustainable fishing standards, limiting both the number of mechanized fishing boats and the area open to them for fishing. Non-mechanized traditional fishing boats are allowed to fish unrestricted. No mechanized fishing is allowed within 5 km of the entire stretch of the Orissa coastline. Only mechanized boats with a length less than 15m are allowed to fish the stretch from 5-15 km. All mechanized boats above 15 m length are allowed to fish only beyond 20 km of the shoreline. The use of TED is also mandatory under OMFRA. Additionally, in December 2000, the government of Orissa also prohibited mechanized fishing within 20 km from the high-tide line along a 150-km stretch from the mouth of the Jatadhar river to the mouth of the Devi river, and from the mouth of Chilika lake to the mouth of the Rushikulya river. This ban is from 1 January to 31 May every year. Local fishermen support this move, since, in addition to being a threat to the turtles, trawling also impacts local fish catches. Despite all the laws, however, illegal trawling has not stopped and continues to threaten the turtles, marine life and the livelihoods of the traditional fisherfolk.2

Depleting marine resources and the inability to control trawling has caused dissatisfaction among the traditional fisherfolk, as they see trawlers continuing while they cannot fish in the turtle season because of the fear of nets being torn. The loss of income to traditional fishermen has often meant that they have turned to the illegal practice of casting zero-mesh nets along the beaches and river mouths for shrimp seedlings. This results in further deaths of turtles, who cannot come out of these nets.3

Lack of support from FD

A lack of support and difficult communication and interaction with the forest officials in charge of turtle conservation is another major problem faced by the villagers. According to the local youth, the FD has a tendency towards creating plantations along the coast. Such plantations are detrimental for nesting sites, as dunes are required for nesting. Some plantations done in the village Gokhurkuda have reduced the area available for nesting.

Youth also feel that the FD should involve the local youth more actively in the protection activity and the funds thus saved could be used for the overall development of the village community. But they claim that the FD, on the contrary, is late in doing what is mandated to it. For example, nowadays the nesting beaches get very dirty, which the youth claim directly affects the temperature required for hatching. The FD is supposed to clean the beaches, which they do not carry out in time. The local youth then take an initiative to clean the beach but are not paid anything for this. The greatest problem that the youth face is a lack of communication with the FD, a lack of any forum that can be the interface between the people and the FD.

Considering that Rushikulya is now among the few safe nesting sites for the Olive Ridley, government should make it a priority to start a dialogue forum with the local people and recognize, facilitate and support their initiative at conservation. There is also a possibility of the area being declared a Conservation Reserve under the Wildlife Amendment Act, 2003, which needs to be explored. However the declaration should be done only after absolute consent of the local people and after taking into account all their concerns.

  This case study has been contributed by Smita Ranjane, Rabindranath Sahu and Neema Pathak in December 2006 with the help of Vasundhara, Bhubaneshwar and the Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee, Purunabandha, Ganjam, in April 2006.

Rabindranath Sahu
Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee
At Purunabandha
Post Pallibandha
District Ganjam (Orissa) 761026
Tel: 06811-254148 (R), 09437204384 (mobile)
E-mail: [email protected], [email protected]

Smita Ranjane
Plot no. 15
Shahid Nagar, Bhubaneshwar 751007
Tel: 0674-2542011/12
Email: [email protected]

1 Source: B. Pandav, and B.C. Choudhury, 2000, Operation Kacchappa leaflet; leaflet of World Turtle Organization intended for Olive Ridley Conservation awareness.

2 B. Wright, and B. Mohanty, ‘Operation Kachhapa: An NGO Initiative for Sea Turtle Conservation in Orissa’, in K. Shankar, and B.C. Choudhury, (eds.), Marine Turtles of the Indian Subcontinent (UNDP and Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, (2006).

3 (As above).

This case study was part of the Directory on Community Conserved Areas (2009), published by Kalpavriksh. The directory can be downloaded here.

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