"We have set the ball rolling and now we plan to empower the local village communities to take the cause ahead, along with youth, students and volunteers," Bhau Katdare, president of NGO Sahyadri Nisarg Mitra, told IANS.
The venture, initiated by the Sahyadri Nisarg Mitra (SNM) with little or no resources, has now attracted international attention, besides financial help from other environmental groups, the state government, corporates and trusts.
As a first step in the SNM's attempts to involve the local villagers in a big way, a variety of community activities are conducted round the year, especially during the annual turtle festival.
"There are awareness camps, film shows, dedicated cricket matches, nature walks, talks and competitions on environment, nature conservation and a computer training institute," Katdare said.
For outsiders, a workshop on turtle conservation techniques and hatchery management was conducted by the Kasav Mitra Mandal at Velas, where 40 participants from all over Maharashtra had converged.
Explaining the reasons behind the legacy, Katdare said the SNM and other groups successfully saved and released this year 3,555 turtle hatchlings into the Arabian Sea at various points on the Konkan coast.
Though the conservation now spans 36 villages in Raigad and Ratnagiri, 10 coastal villages were identified for attracting a large number of turtles.
They include Velas, Kelshi, Anjarle, Kolthare, Dabhol, Guhagar and Tavsal in Ratnagiri district and Diveagar, Maral and Harihareshwar in Raigad, with the direct and indirect efforts of a population of nearly 25,000 (in the 10 villages).
"This year, besides Velas (Ratnagiri), where the annual three-month turtle festival during the breeding season has been a major attraction, we organised a small two-day festival at Maral (Raigad) to create awareness of the cause," Katdare said.
Last year in December, a similar turtle festival was held for the first time in Vengurla, Sindhudurg district in southern Konkan, by the Kirat Trust.
"Now, we want the local villagers to be actively involved in this and next year onwards. The people of Velas shall organise the annual turtle festival between February and April. Of course, we shall be there to provide them any technical, administrative, logistics or expert assistance, but it will be the villagers' own effort," smiled Katdare, who has been spearheading the Chiplun-based NGO for 22 years, including the turtle conservation project for the past 10 years.
Discussing the success, a young village volunteer, Supriya Uke, said that in the past decade, the efforts have resulted in saving nearly 39,000 turtle hatchlings in over 700 nesting sites from natural and human predators. This includes 3,555 hatchlings from 68 nests this year in the targeted villages.
Velas leads the pack of villages showing good results in turtle conservation with the entire village community involved in the initiative - this year, 736 hatchlings were released from 17 nesting sites on its beach.
"Virtually every household contributes to the effort directly or indirectly and are also getting extra income from around 2,500 tourists who throng during the festival," Katdare said.
In a morale booster, the Maharashtra government has chipped in Rs.8.90 lakh donation to be used for two years (from this year), while the Tata Consultancy Group gave Rs.1.25 lakh. The Shri Shankarlal Pokarna Charitable Trust, Pune, has donated Rs.2.25 lakhs.
The people from Velas and other villages also contributed 10 percent of their income, a modest Rs.18,000 - derived from the tourist traffic - to the turtle conservation efforts, Supriya said.
Villagers provide basic lodging and boarding to the hordes of tourists and environmentalists who converge there during the turtle festivals.
A major highlight this year was the training of 75 volunteers from Raleigh Expeditions, Mangalore, an international NGO which provides trained manpower support to conservation efforts in several countries.
"Both international and national volunteers from Raleigh Expedition, along with the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), visited the marine turtle conservation project in Velas, in five batches from November 2011- April 2012," said Katdare.