COVID-19, CYCLONES AND SEA TURTLES IN INDIA

Adhith Swaminathan1 & Nupur Kale2,#

1Dakshin Foundation, Bengaluru, India

2Wildlife Conservation Society-India, Bengaluru, India

#nupur.kale03@gmail.com

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The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a sudden nation-wide lockdown in India on 24th March 2020. The nesting season of leatherback and olive ridley turtles start from November and lasts until April both on the Indian mainland coast and Island territories, while green and hawksbills nest throughout the year. The nationwide lockdown did not have any significant influence on sea turtle nesting, monitoring and conservation activities.

On the east coast, olive ridley turtles usually nest from December to March, and hence most of the nesting had concluded when the national lockdown was announced. In the state of Odisha, mass nesting (arribada) took place at Rushikulya rookery from the 21st to 26th March 2020, including a day-time nesting event, which partially overlapped with commencement of the lockdown. While it is not uncommon to have turtles nesting during the day in these arribadas, some of the Indian media channels reported this phenomenon to be a result of reduced human activity on the beach (e.g., Das, 2020; Express News Service, 2020; Gill, 2020).

Researchers from Dakshin Foundation continued to monitor the beach till the 24th March 2020. It was estimated that over 200,000 turtles had nested during the first three days of the arribada. Despite the lockdown, the Odisha Forest Department personnel were present for the mass hatching to ensure that disoriented hatchlings were released at the water’s edge. During the lockdown, there was a cyclonic event (Cyclone Amphan) on the 16th May 2020 that was expected to affect the Odisha coast; however, the cyclone moved north towards West Bengal and resulted in no damage to the critical nesting beaches of Odisha.
In Tamil Nadu, the Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) reported that the nesting season had ended prior to the lockdown, however, the clutches relocated to the hatcheries continued to hatch till May. In collaboration with the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, SSTCN members were granted permission from the local authorities to visit the hatchery and ensure that the hatchlings were released in a timely manner.

The west coast of Maharashtra has low-density nesting. Nevertheless, the village of Velas hosts an annual “Turtle Festival”, a sea turtle-based ecotourism initiative jointly run by the village panchayat (local government) and the Mangrove Foundation of the Maharashtra Forest Department. Since the lockdown led to cancellation of all tourism related activities, the Mangrove Foundation hosted the Turtle Festival on Facebook Live and broadcast hatchling releases every morning and evening for viewers to witness from their homes. However, on 1st June, 2020, the Maharashtra coast was hit by Cyclone Nisarga which caused heavy damage to sheds and other structures used to protect the nesting sites in Velas and other sea turtle nesting beaches in Anjarle, Dabhol, Kelshi etc. Fortunately, there was no damage to the beach, and since the cyclone had occurred after the end of the nesting season, monitoring and ecotourism activities were not hampered.

With most organisations working from home and online, there was an increase in outreach sessions conducted in the form of webinars, especially on the occasion of World Turtle Day (23rd May 2020). The themes of these webinars varied from understanding sea turtle biology and conservation to the work being conducted in the region and the experiences of sea turtle biologists. These sessions were conducted in vernacular and English and were hosted by a range of news media outlets like the Mumbai MTB, research centres like the Kalinga CRE and government organisations like the Mangrove Foundation.

On the whole, the lockdown did not have a major impact on any monitoring activities since the nesting season across India was nearing its end. Most organisations and individuals, approved by relevant local Government authorities, were able to continue any required monitoring activities without much disruption. With the reduction in fishing activities and other anthropogenic activities on the beaches during the lockdown, the impact of associated threats to sea turtles and their habitats were considerably lessened, though temporarily.

Literature cited:
Das, K.S. 2020. Undisturbed mass nesting of olive ridleys at Odisha’s Rushikulya rookery. The Hindu March 25, 2020. https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/coronavirus-lockdown-undisturbed-mass-nesting-of-olive-ridleys-at-odishas-rushikulya-rookery/article31166566.ece. Accessed on June 11, 2020.

Gill, P. 2020. Endangered olive ridley sea turtles nest in peace at empty Odisha beaches as Coronavirus keeps people in lock down. Business Insider India Mar 26, 2020. https://www.businessinsider.in/science/environment/news/endangered-olive-ridley-sea-turtles-nest-in-peace-at-empty-odisha-beaches-as-coronavirus-keeps-people-in-lock-down/articleshow/74822132.cms. Accessed on June 11, 2020.

Express News Service. 2020. Lockdown keeps tourists away from Olive Ridley nesting spots in Odisha. The New Indian Express May 3, 2020. https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/odisha/2020/may/03/lockdown-keeps-tourists-away-from-endangered-olive-ridley-nesting-spots-in-odisha-2138586.html. Accessed on June 11, 2020.