Film Maker: Shekar Dattatri
Time: 45 minutes
It has indeed been very disturbing to read some of the news pegs last week in various Indian newspapers about the Olive Ridley turtles. The Times of India mentioned on 29th January 2019; ‘Pregnant Olive Ridley found dead in Kanyakumari’. The headlines in The New Indian Express stated, ‘600 dead Olive Ridleys wash ashore in two days in Odisha’; The Orissa Post declares that the “Forest department was ‘indifferent’ to protect Olive Ridleys”. Quite clearly, there is something very wrong that is going on in the oceans and the Olive Ridleys are facing the brunt.
These turtles are the smallest and most abundant of all sea turtles found in the world and inhabit the warm waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. It is most unfortunate that they now figure in the IUCN Red List.
These events made me recall a beautiful documentary-film, called ‘The Ridley’s Last Stand’, that I had seen at an environment film festival a decade and a half ago. The Ridley’s Last Stand is a poignant narration of man’s callous attitude towards his environment and all that it sustains. Through the 45 minutes Shekar Dattatri, then a young Chennai based filmmaker, exposes how man’s greed and ignorance results in the utter disregard and destruction of nature’s bounty.
In this film, Dattatri has taken up the case of the diminishing population of Olive Ridley turtles which come to nest every year in the Gahirmatha beach located in the Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary, Orissa.
The Olive Ridley is a small, hard-shelled marine turtle, one of the two species of the genus Lepidochelys, and a member of the family Cheloniidae. The reason they get their name is due to the colouring of their heart-shaped carapace (shell), which starts out grey but reaches an olive green once the turtles get to be adults. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists all populations of Olive Ridley as endangered. They are also listed on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), which means that trade in Olive Ridleys, their eggs or any part or product derived from the turtle is forbidden.
In the Indian Ocean, Gahirmatha supports the largest nesting population with an average of 398,000 females nesting in a given year. There are only two other places in the world where such mass nesting of sea turtles takes place, namely, Costa Rica and Mexico. Datattri recalls the first time he had come to witness the hatching the turtles. The film captures the spectacle of the arribada– the arrival of the turtles- in a series of spectacular shots. Through the eye of the camera, he captures female turtles digging up holes in the sand and laying their eggs. And then, as it has been going on for millennia, these eggs hatch and young turtles emerge. Dattatri’s camera captures this breathtaking event beautifully.
However, a mere ten years later, the fate of these turtles -ironically revered as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu- the Preserver amongst the Holy Trinity- is quite different. The advent of large fishing trawlers and monofilament gill nets has proved to be the nemesis for these turtles.
Unlike traditional modes of fishing, the use of mechanized trawlers, trap these turtles along with the fish. Turtles need to come out to breathe in air and are unable to do so when they get trapped leading to asphyxiation in the large nets. The trawler’s propellers also injure them. The documentary reels out these figures: 10000 dead in 1999/2000, nearly 17,000 in 2000/01 an over 14,000 in 2001/02. Combine this with images of dead turtles being washed ashore as reported by the newspaper even today, it should make your stomach churn. But what is worse are images of people on the beaches going about their work oblivious to the dead carcasses that are often attacked by packs of dogs. Just how insensitive have we become?
A simple solution to reduce the statistics of dead turtles drastically is by the mandatory use of ‘turtle exclusion device’ (TEDs). A TED is a specialised device that allows a captured sea turtle to escape when caught in a fisherman’s net. On the bright side, there are few conservationists who have taken it upon themselves to save the Ridleys and the film captures their struggle too. The film follows the work of Biswajit Mohanty, a conservationist and Bivash Panday, a biologist from the Wildlife Protection Society of India, which had launched the ‘Operation Kacchappa’ in 1998. They have been working tirelessly to advocate the use of TEDs, to build public support and providing logistical support to the UNDP Turtle Project and advocate a total ban on mechanized fishing. The Coast Guard has also been very active in patrolling the area.
In 45 minutes, Dattatri effectively packs in a lot of information with a lot of visuals, graphics, and a terse commentary and is definitely a must see for all concerned citizens. No wonder the filmmaker has won several awards for the film, for instance, the ‘Golden Tree award in 2003, at the Vatavaran India’s environment and wildlife film festival. Recognition also came to him from Rolex, the famed Swiss watchmakers, who honoured him as an ‘Associate Enterprise Laureate for 2004 for “using short wildlife and conservation films to influence the public and policy makers on environmental issues in India.
Before I end this piece, I cannot but highlight the events of last year at the Versova Beach in Mumbai when on March 21st, 2018 more than 80 Ridley turtles hatched and made their way into the Arabian Sea. This was the first sighting of Olive Ridley after 20 years and conservationists indicate that the event was definitely linked to the huge clean-up operation of the beach by citizen groups led by the Mumbai-based UNEP Champion of the Earth and lawyer Afroz Shah.
Brass turtles make for great Fen Shui. What better Feng Shui if we make this planet more livable for all species?