Drilling Threaten Olive Ridley Turtles in Orissa
Indo-Asian News Service
October 26, 2004

Bhubaneswar: When the endangered Olive Ridley turtles return to Orissa's coast for their annual synchronised mating and nesting, they will find large drilling rigs for gas disturbing their tranquillity.

The classic battle between environment and development is being played out near the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary in Orissa's Kendrapada district, 174 km from here, the world's largest turtle nesting site. And also the site for offshore drilling by India's leading business house, Reliance Industries.

One of nature's annual miracles could just be disrupted -- as 700,000-800,000 Olive Ridley turtles begin swimming their way to Gahirmatha with the onset of every winter as if working to an internal clock to congregate, mate and nest.

Conservationists from across the world have been petitioning the Indian and Orissa governments to protect the world's biggest turtle population. But it seems to have come to nought. When the idea of offshore drilling for gas was mooted last year, wildlife lovers and environmentalists the world over opposed it.

The federal ministry of environment and forest promptly set up a multi-disciplinary expert (MDE) group in December 2003 comprising experts from various fields to assess its likely impact of on sea turtles.

In the first report, the group denied permission to drill at the sites, said a member of the MDE. The group had allowed drilling at another site near the Gahirmatha for a limited period of six months when turtles do not stay in the offshore waters, he said.

Nobody knows why this restriction was lifted and drilling was allowed till October 2004, activists have pointed out.

In a revised report, the group also increased the drilling period from six to eight months, ignoring published data by the Wildlife Wing of the Orissa government that turtles arrive in the coast from October to May.

"We fear this drilling period would clash with the presence of the Olive Ridleys in the offshore waters and may adversely impact their congregation and mating leading to likely nesting failure," said an environmentalist.

He recalled how the MDE had hastily revised several of its own recommendations after a meeting in June in New Delhi on the basis of a presentation by foreign marine biologist James Ray on behalf of Reliance Industries.

Ray's presentation was based on studies on the impact on sea turtles of offshore oil and gas production platforms located in the Gulf of Mexico and had little relevance to Olive Ridley turtles -- which occur in extremely small numbers of less than 2,000 in the Gulf of Mexico.

Moreover, Ray had never visited Orissa to carry out a field study on sea turtles of Orissa, the environmentalist said. Some members of the group dissented from the final report.

Turtle scientist CS Kar said: "Since available scientific data is deficient relating to sea turtles/marine life forms in offshore areas, precautionary principles should be adopted till such information is readily available in order to protect the country's wildlife heritage.

"This will only mean temporary postponement of the activities and should not mean restricting the activities." The "precautionary principle" laid down by the Supreme Court has been ignored by the MEG while allowing the drilling activity. A conservationist from Orissa who is a member of MDE disassociated himself from the final report by questioning its legality.

"Parallel proceedings about the likely impact of offshore industrial development on Olive Ridleys is pending before the Supreme Court appointed central empowered committee (CEC) and I cannot be a part of this illogical drilling exercise," he said.

The CEC had directed the authorities to file a list of present and planned offshore industrial activity in the coast of Orissa and the likely impact on sea turtles, which is yet to be done, he said. Besides Gahirmatha, the state has two other nesting sites Devi River in Puri district and Rusikulya river in Ganjam district.

The MEG has also given permission for drilling near a site at Rusikulya beach against the wishes of some members of the group, sources said. Over the last decade, an estimated 100,000 turtles have died on the Orissa coast, caught in the nets of trawlers and gill-netters and for several other reasons.

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