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Turtles come to be rescued at India's only treatment and transit centre for reptiles at Dahanu

How a teenager, a member of the Koli community and a limping Olive Ridley came together to set up India's only treatment and transit centre for the reptiles at Dahanu

Namo, a rescued Olive Ridley turtle that lost its flipper after it got entangled in a fishing net, has been at the Sea Turtle and Wildlife Treatment Centre for the last two years. It’s also one of the four turtles in the world to have an artificial flipper made for it. Pics/Nimesh Dave
Namo, a rescued Olive Ridley turtle that lost its flipper after it got entangled in a fishing net, has been at the Sea Turtle and Wildlife Treatment Centre for the last two years. It’s also one of the four turtles in the world to have an artificial flipper made for it. Pics/Nimesh Dave

In the monsoon of 2004, Dhaval Kansara, fresh out of school, was hot on the trail of an Olive Ridley turtle, he'd only heard of as part of local folklore in his hometown Dahanu. Langdi kahad, meaning crippled turtle — an unflattering sobriquet the limping reptile had earned — came once every year in the intervening months of June or July, dug a pit in the sand, laid her eggs and left. Her nesting chore had become an annual sighting on the shores of Dahanu. But, on several occasions, eggs mysteriously vanished from the site, only to be found on dinner plates.

For Kansara, a wildlife enthusiast, Langdi Kahad had to be pursued if her progeny were to be conserved. Barely 17 then, the young teen enlisted the help of a fisherfolk boy Sachin Mangela and kept an eye for the turtle in the wee hours of the nights. She did appear that year, and for a couple of years after that. Each time, the duo would take the eggs into a hatchery they had made in Mangela's home, and release the hatchlings once they were ready to take flight. This cycle abruptly ended in 2007, when the turtle stopped showing up altogether. Nobody knew if she had died or had been injured, or whether she had opted for another nesting ground. But, the seeds for India's first treatment and transit centre for injured turtles had been sown.

Switch to 10 years later, the Sea Turtle and Wildlife Treatment Centre, situated 140 km from Mumbai in the green belt of Dahanu, is spearheading the movement for conservation of the reptile species in the country like no other. Despite limited funds and lack of technical expertise, the Wildlife Conservation and Animal Welfare Association (WCAWA), along with the forest division of the region — on whose premises the centre is located — has released 80 per cent of the 150 odd injured turtles that it has rescued. Until last week, around 20 injured turtles that were found along the coastline this season, were brought into the centre. Here, these endangered turtles get another shot at life.

Around four to five of the 100 volunteers with Wildlife Conservation and Animal Welfare Association attend to the turtles daily
Around four to five of the 100 volunteers with Wildlife Conservation and Animal Welfare Association attend to the turtles daily

How they land up here
The 720-km-long coastline of the state, which covers Mumbai, Raigad, Thane, Palghar, Ratnagiri and beyond, is a rich nesting ground for sea turtles. Every year, starting June till until October, female Olive Ridley, Loggerhead, Hawksbill and green sea turtles, make their way from the deep sea to the coastline to nest at secluded spots. Unfortunately, this brief stop-over comes at great risk. "Oft-en, the turtles while swimming towards the coa-stline get caught in the fishing nets of big trawlers. When cleaning the nets, the trawler staff don't bother removing the turtles and, instead, just cut its flipper off before throwing it back into the water," says Kan-sara, 29, now honorary wildlife warden of the Dahanu region and founder of the WCAWA.

The centre has five isolation tanks. Apart from that, there are two pools — one where the turtles are quarantined and another, where a swimming ability test is conducted.
The centre has five isolation tanks. Apart from that, there are two pools — one where the turtles are quarantined and another, where a swimming ability test is conducted.

If that wasn't bad enough, the turtles get trapped in the nets of local fishermen, who spread their nets in the expanse of the ocean during the monsoon because they aren't allowed to go fishing. "When the fishermen return a few days later to collect the nets, the struggling turtle would have already injured itself severely," says Kansara. Here, he is quick to add that it's mostly female turtles, who come on land to nest, that are prone to such injuries. "The male turtles always wade in the deep sea," he says.

Visiting vet Dr Dinesh Vinherkar (left) from Santacruz helped build the centre
Visiting vet Dr Dinesh Vinherkar (left) from Santacruz helped build the centre

Home away from home
Back in 2011, when an alarming number of injured and dead Olive Ridley turtles washed ashore, a helpless Kansara, along with a few wildlife lovers, approached Ganjendra P Naravane, the then deputy conservator of forest, Dahanu. The water species is protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and hampering its nesting site or keeping it at home can amount to seven years imprisonment and a fine of Rs 25,000. But, the rules were never stringently followed. "It was shocking and embarrassing that such prized wildlife was vanishing so quickly right in front of our eyes," says Kansara.

After a meeting, Naravane mooted a plan to open a rescue and treatment centre, close to forest office premises, which overlooked the sea. They also created banners, which were placed at strategic locations along the coastline, offered anyone a prize money of Rs 5,000 if they shared information on turtle nesting sites. "The posters helped us build a small network of wildlife informants," he recalls.

Dhaval Kansara, founder of WCAWA and honorary wildlife warden, Dahanu
Dhaval Kansara, honorary wildlife warden, Palghar district

Meanwhile, a makeshift pit was dug in the sand and a tarpaulin sheet was laid, where seawater was filled. Each time, an injured turtle was brought in, it was placed here and a local vet would be called to help out. However, forest officers soon realised that vets in the area lacked knowledge about treating sea turtles. On a vet's recommendation, they approached Dr Dinesh Vinherkar from Vakola, Santacruz, who specialised in sea turtle care. With the help of Vinherkar, who was hired as visiting staff, the team created a protocol for turtle treatment that matched international standards.

Today, the centre is growing from strength to strength. At present, they have around four to five isolation tanks, where the turtles are kept during the course of their treatment. Apart from that there are two pools, one where the turtles are quarantined right after they are brought in, and another, where a swimming ability test is conducted, before they are sent back to the sea. The volunteers have also built a filtering unit on their own, due to lack of funds, to purify the sea water. There is also an operation theatre in the 100x100 square feet space, and an ambulance that attends to calls across the region. The lack of an X-Ray machine, however, is proving to be a major hurdle in treatment with staff having to plead with local diagnostic centres to scan the turtles.

Alia Bhatt seen releasing Queen, an Olive Ridley turtle, in May this year
Alia Bhatt seen releasing Queen, an Olive Ridley turtle, in May this year

The treatment centre, a first in the country, has met with many successes. A crippled Olive Ridley turtle Namo, was the first to get a prosthetic limp, called Dahanu flipper — only three others in the world been fitted with one. For the last two years, Vinherkar and his team have been working towards training Namo to swim. "Its recovery is slow," informs Kansara. Queen, the naughtiest of the turtles, was released in May by actress Alia Bhatt. Over 100 volunteers from WCAWA alternately work with the centre, while the forest department has hired one permanent staff to feed the turtles, whose diet comprises bombils, crabs, coriander and spinach leaves.

The department now hopes to renovate the premises into a state-of-the-art, tourist centre in order to generate revenue that could be pumped into sea turtle research and treatment. "The state has given us a grant of Rs 25 lakh," said NS Ladkad, present deputy conservator of forest, Dahanu. "We hope to expand the premises soon, and become an example for others in Maharashtra and the rest of India to follow. Every day is a challenge, especially when it comes to funds, but to see the turtles go back home safely, makes it all worth it."

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