Every year around February or March, a strip of beach at the end of Odisha’s central river delta witnesses one of the world’s most extraordinary natural spectacles. Having swum right across the Pacific and Indian oceans, hundreds of thousands of female olive ridley marine turtles crawl onto the sand to nest. Almost as soon as the egg laying is complete, they’re off again into the surf to begin the journey back to their mating grounds on the other side of the world.
No one knows quite why they travel such distances, but for local villagers the arrival of the giant turtles was traditionally something of a boon: turtle soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and extra cash from market sales. Over the years the annual slaughter began to turn into a green gold rush, and turtle numbers plummeted drastically until the Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary on Gahirmatha beach, 130km northeast of Bhubaneswar, was set up in 1975 at the personal behest of Indira Gandhi. Weeks before the big three- or four-day invasion, coastguards monitor the shoreline and armed rangers aim to keep poachers at bay. For wildlife enthusiasts it’s a field day.
Over the last ten to fifteen years, however, environmental threats have impacted on the turtles’ habitat. Local families cultivate land within the sanctuary, while illegal prawn farms, fishing trawlers, industrial pollution, and distracting night-time light from nearby settlements are additional hazards.
However, there are some positive signs. Further fishing restrictions have been put in place, conservation organizations, including Greenpeace and the WWF, are monitoring the area, and the number of turtles nesting along the Odishan coast has risen over the last few years – some 722,000 nested here in the 2014–15 season.