Getting youngsters environment-ready

A unique campaign is on in Odisha to protect the marine ecosystem and Olive Ridley turtles

Summer or winter, young activists Soumya Ranjan Biswal and Dillip Kumar Biswal of the Odisha Paryavaran Sanrakshan Abhiyan are championing the cause of the environment and the survival of the Olive Ridley turtles that come every year to nest on the beaches of Odisha.

In winter, the duo can be seen wearing green turtle costumes, a unique way they have found to reach out to school and college students, fisher folk and the community to preserve the rare eco-system of Odisha that attracts these turtles.

With survival of the turtles down to one of every 1,000 born on Odisha’s beaches, the Olly event, as Soumya and Dillip choose to call it, was supported by the State’s forest and wildlife department and the two cycled 1,200 km through Rushikulya, Chilika, Puri, Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Bhadrak and Balasore from January 5 to February 2 this year, beating their own Limca Book Record of 2018 of an 800-km cycle ride to save the turtles.

Apart from their cycle ride and eye-catching campaigns for the Olive Ridley, during the nesting season — normally February end/early March — they spend nights on the beaches of Devi and other nesting zones, guarding the hatcheries till the birth of the young ones and their safe exodus to their homes across the seas.

But for these two activists, there is no resting on laurels. When the turtle nesting season is over they work on other environment related issues — protecting mangroves, working with schools on environment programmes, creating awareness on climate change with women’s groups and the community. In the current hot summer months they dig water holes and ensure sustenance for wildlife in the forested areas.

“After cyclone Fani and the massive destruction it caused, we are working on rebuilding the coastal areas and planting trees that will act as a buffer and reduce the impact of cyclone and storms”, Soumya pointed out.

Turtle protection, however, continues to be their priority. This year, there was no mass nesting in Rushikulya due to the Titli Cyclone in October 2018. Some artificial hatcheries were constructed in different nesting zones, including Rushikulya, Devi, which the second cyclone, Fani, destroyed completely. So, dealing with natural disasters and the predatory behaviour of humans and stray dogs, the vigil and work to save the turtles is unending.

Due to these various exigencies, the Olly event some months ago was larger, more spectacular and impactful. With government support, the surge of people that came to see and understand the movement for the turtles moved quickly through the coastal route. Soumya and Dillip took turns wearing the turtle uniform and engaged with youth and the community, talking about the turtles’ long journey and how blessed Odisha was, to be their nesting ground.

Official mascot

The government has declared the Olive Ridley turtle as the official mascot for all sports events in the State.

Soumya and Dillip were able to interact with people at all eight coastal divisions known for the congregation of turtles. In addition to the State government’s forest and wildlife divisions, the environment and sport departments too provided support. An official Olly mascot and several cycles were provided en route for new recruits in the mission to save the turtles.

Three specific events marked the journey. A door-to-door campaign with volunteers knocking on the door of each house and appealing to keep the coast clean, pollution free and to protect the Olive Ridley by conserving its marine ecosystem. In doing so, they also avert or minimise the impact of tsunamis and cyclones. The activists held workshops and trained volunteers in the techniques of tracing turtle nesting points, collecting eggs and installing and managing artificial hatcheries. Volunteers are taught how to move the eggs to the hatcheries and ensure maximum survival.

Coir turtle crafts were distributed to children in remote coastal areas to draw them into the teams of youngsters protecting the marine ecosystem and the Olive Ridley.

The campaign was flagged off from the office of the Regional Chief Conservator of Forests, Behrampore division, and both the RCCF and the district forest officer accompanied the Olly campaigners. Together, they reached out to eight schools in Behrampore city and 20 villages of Behrampore division.

At tourist destinations like the beaches of Sonepur, Dhabaleswar and Gopalpur, the focus was on creating awareness on the impact of plastic pollution on beaches. In Bhadrak division, the city’s eco-clubs and environment enthusiasts joined in. Representatives of 30 schools, colleges and eco-clubs cycled with the Olly campaign duo. Soumya and Dillip also got a rousing reception on January 26, Republic Day, at Balasore and were able to interact with over 100 fisherfolk. Exhausted by the long journey but with spirits at an all-time high, the duo visited and got on board 82 schools and 68 villages. They had visited seven tourist sites and crossed seven rivers on the 1,200-km cycle journey for saving the turtles. Now, with summer in full swing they are getting people ready for the next turtle season.

The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist

Published on June 14, 2019

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