Saving the Olive Ridley

Endangered sea turtles such as the Olive Ridley have inspired campaigns to save the seas, sandy beaches, and dunes. To save turtles is to save an entire ecosystem. But this protected mascot species faces a rising threat from avoidable coastal development, the planting of exotic trees, and the illumination of beachfront dwellings. The building of coastal structures, including groynes and walls, blocks off access and exacerbates erosion; the planting of casuarina trees preve nts nesting; and lights along the coast confuse turtle hatchlings, fatally attracting them inland. Unless these threats are addressed quickly and scientifically, the Olive Ridley may lose its nesting habitats in the Indian subcontinent and suffer a sharp decline. For many years now, Olive Ridley deaths traceable to human interference have been high. Despite high levels of awareness, recent reports speak of a continuing tragedy. Indian Institute of Science ecologists fear that about 10,000 turtles die annually in Orissa, where they nest en masse. Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh provide low or medium density habitats but they are vital to the health of the species. The planting of casuarina trees on the coast, particularly along the high tideline, is a man-made stressor for the Olive Ridley. Although the intention is to protect habitations from cyclones using a tree belt (as in Tamil Nadu), using an exotic species to create a barrier is at best naive. The outcome of massive tree planting on the high tideline on the basis of shaky evidence threatens to deprive the Olive Ridley of its nesting habitat, and many other species of their general habitat. Scientists at a conference organised in Tamil Nadu in 2006 by the Forest Department, the UNDP, and the Nature Conservation Foundation outlined such negative outcomes of poorly conceived interventions. Clearly, it is futile to attempt engineering solutions to make coastlines resilient to natural events such as cyclones and tsunamis: the ecological costs are just too high and the benefits uncertain. There is little merit in creating coastal casuarina plantations (which many fishermen do not favour around their habitations) and concrete groynes and walls (which accelerate coastal erosion elsewhere). The substantial funds available for such projects from multilateral and official agencies can instead be used to mitigate fundamental problems that affect ecosystem health: pollution, saltpans, aquaculture, and inappropriate constructions. A healthy future for the Olive Ridley and the rest of the ecosystem depends on providing active protection on the coast and allowing coastal ecosystems to regenerate naturally.

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