Leatherback turtles under threat as government considers ‘development’ in Little Andaman

Leatherback turtle. Photo by Adhith Swaminathan.

  • Proposed development of the Little Andaman island, if implemented, will pose a threat to nesting sites of the leatherback turtle.
  • Five species of marine turtles are found in Indian waters. The leatherback is the largest of all living turtles and India and Sri Lanka are the only places in South Asia with large nesting populations.
  • The island is also home to the Onge native tribe with a population of just 112 individuals, having dwindled over the years.

A 58-page, undated “vision document” for the “sustainable development” of the Little Andaman Island in the Bay of Bengal was produced by the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog, a think tank of the Government of India. The document, not in the public domain but reviewed by Mongabay-India, states that “ecological and environmental constraints” have meant that the strategic and economic potential of the island, about 675 sq km in area, were never developed to their full potential; 95% of the island is under forest cover. There is need to “open” Little Andaman, which is “as big as Singapore” and “release the area for deployment of strategic assets”, the document states. Comparison is also drawn with tourist destinations like Bali and Phuket. Underlining the Singapore comparison, the vision document says that while the population density of the Little Andaman is 47 people per sq km, it is 7,615 per sq km in Singapore.

“What is stopping us from developing these into veritable jewels for the country?” asks the document. However, previous research and experts currently note that the development of the Little Andaman Island will pose a threat to nesting sites of the leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea).

One of seven species of marine turtles globally, of which five are found in Indian waters, the leatherback is the only sea turtle that lacks a bony shell and has a leather-like, flexible carapace; that is what gives it its name. The leatherback is the largest of all living turtles, among the largest of all reptiles.

Leatherbacks sometimes grow over six feet in length, making them much larger than the average human. They could weigh up to one tonne (1000 kg), and they achieve this impressive weight on a diet of jellyfish. Leatherbacks are found in every ocean except the Arctic and Antarctic, and they are great travellers.

Watch: A leatherback sea turtle returns to the ocean after nesting on a Costa Rica beach

Many populations of the species, though, have been in sharp decline. Malaysian rookeries that would see approximately 5000 nests per year in the 1960s saw less than 10 nests by the early 2000s. Similar declines have been seen in the east Pacific, in Costa Rica and elsewhere.

Adhith Swaminathan, researcher at Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore, in the April-June 2018 issue of Hornbill magazine, described the experience of “Tracking a hundred-million-year-old giant”. Sri Lanka and India, he explained in the report, were the only sites in South Asia with large nesting populations of the leatherbacks. Since 2009, Swaminathan has been part of a research project to assess the recovery of the species after the tsunami of December 2004.

Working with Naveen Namboothri of Dakshin Foundation and Kartik Shanker of IISc Bangalore, Swaminathan monitored nesting sites and tagged 10 leatherbacks using satellite transmitters. One turtle had covered 13,000 km from the Little Andaman to the coast of Mozambique in 266 days, swimming about 50 km each day. A majority of tracked turtles moved from the Little Andaman towards Southeast Asia, with one reaching Australia. Monitoring occurred from November to March each year. Scientists gathered data on nests and biometric measurements, with information on time of nesting, duration of oviposition (expulsion of the egg), tide and clutch size. Adults were tagged so scientists could identify individuals.

A research team monitored nesting sites in the Little Andaman and tagged leatherbacks using satellite transmitters. Photo by Adith Swaminathan.

In June 2019, in their latest report submitted to the government, the scientists reported that the leatherbacks have two high-intensity nesting sites on the Little Andaman, on the South Bay and the West Bay. “The monitoring indicates that leatherback nesting on beaches of Little Andaman Island has recovered substantially after the 2004 tsunami,” the scientists report. Satellite trackers could not be used after 2016, for lack of funds, but will be deployed as part of an ongoing project.

Conserving marine turtles

In a letter dated January 19, 2021, Prakash Javadekar, Union minister for Environment Forests and Climate Change of the Government of India noted, “Besides being home to one of the largest congregations of nesting of the Olive Ridley Turtles, five species of marine turtles are found in India. These species found in Indian marine waters have been listed in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and therefore, accorded very high protection status.” He was writing as part of an introductory note to the National Marine Turtle Action Plan of the Government of India, 2021-26. This 24-page plan document aims at identifying threats to these marine species and offers a list of activities to be undertaken to mitigate those. Among activities to be initiated in the year 2021 are: 1. Collate and organize existing data on threats; 2. Establish baseline data collection and monitoring programmes; 3. Determine populations affected by incidental capture in fisheries and other sources of mortality.

Sea turtles are a slow-maturing, long-lived species. There should ideally be longer term studies to better understand them. The marine turtle action plan document of January 2021 offers a roadmap for such studies, but only for five years. However, if the plan according to the NITI Aayog vision document for the Little Andamans is implemented, the fear is that the leatherbacks, which have swum across the oceans for millions of years, will be pushed to the brink of extinction.

“Little Andaman is an important nesting site for leatherback turtles in the region and an index site for monitoring for nearly 15 years now. More importantly, it is a significant repository of endemic island biodiversity and home of the Onge tribe. While there is a critical need for social development for local communities on the islands, we need to make every effort to ensure that the integrity of this ecological and cultural heritage site is preserved,” says Kartik Shanker, professor, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, who is part of a team of scientists monitoring the leatherback turtles since 2009.

In a January 2021 meeting of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife, chaired by Javadekar, the committee also discussed denotification of the Galathea Bay sanctuary, located in the Great Nicobar island, south of the Little Andaman island. The committee directed that a comprehensive management plan be prepared and followed by the Andaman and Nicobar Administration for conservation and protection of leatherback turtles in Great Nicobar Islands. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands Administration shall bring more areas under conservation of the leatherback turtle, noted the minutes of the meeting.

Home of the Onge tribe 

Survival International, the global movement for tribal people’s rights, lists the Onge as the native tribe of the Little Andaman Island. Until the 1940s, this tribe comprised the sole permanent residents of the island – there are now nearly 18,000 settlers on the island, and the Onge have been restricted to a cramped reserve. Survival International puts the population of the Onge at just 112, having dwindled over the years.

Social scientist Pankaj Sekhsaria, who has been studying the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for two decades, noted that this region falls within Seismic Zone V, among the world’s most active seismic zones. The December 2004 tsunami was caused by an earthquake not far from these islands.

“While it is nobody’s case that the entire land mass should be denuded of forest cover and the tribes relegated to the dustbin of history, there is surely a compelling case for clearing up some of the land…” states the vision document, quoting a bureaucrat.

An official source has noted (through a communication available with Mongabay-India) that over 24 lakh trees and 16 lakh cane and other vegetation cover are available in the area where the “development” is proposed. “The proposed area for diversion spreads over vast tract of forests having undulating configuration. Geologically the island is very recent and the area is prone to soil erosion. The existing forest cover provides the binding force to hold the sub-surface with soil. The forest type is tropical rainforest and the island receives about 2020 to 3774 mm of rainfall annually distributed over eight months and removal of forest cover will lead to severe top soil erosion.”

The source also cites a 2002 judgment of the Supreme Court, ordering the closure of saw mills and removal of encroachments – it sought the preservation of the biodiversity of this land and called for immediate suspension of the felling of trees. The plantation of red oil palm was barred, and land allotted for it was returned to the forest department by the SC. “This being the island ecosystem such large diversion of forest land shall have obvious environmental loss leading to irreversible damage…” the source warns.

Read more: Great Nicobar’s protected areas to get near-zero eco-sensitive zones for “holistic development”

Banner image:  Leatherback turtle at West Bay, Little Andaman. Photo by Adhith Swaminathan.

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