The Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. Photo: WII/Facebook
Mumbai: Six months after the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) justified denotifying a significant nesting site for giant leatherback turtles near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands based on an expert’s opinion, the expert’s institute – a premier wildlife research body – has said it has no expertise on these reptiles in this area.
The Indian government created the Galathea Bay wildlife sanctuary in 1997, and recently, in February this year, listed it in India’s National Marine Turtle Action Plan as an important nesting site for giant leatherback turtles, a vulnerable species. But a month earlier, the Union environment ministry had already denotified all 11.44 sq. km of it to facilitate NITI Aayog’s proposal for a mega transshipment port in the area at an estimated cost of Rs 35,000 crore.
A standing committee of the NBWL approved the denotification in January 2021. The minutes of the committee’s meeting included the following statement by Dhananjai Mohan, director of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII):
“If the Government would like to de-notify the Galathea Bay WLS, then it is strongly urged that the concerned authorities develop and implement a mitigation plan to facilitate leatherback and other turtles to continuously nest for which the connectivity between the Galathea River and the Bay should be ensured. The mitigation plan needs to be developed through a detailed study so that marine turtles continue to nest on the beaches near the Galathea Bay during both construction as well as operational phases of the International Shipment Project.”
Lack of expertise
However, the WII itself has said that it has no expertise on or experience with leatherback turtles research in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In a June 7 response to a Right to Information (RTI) application filed by legal researchers in Bengaluru, the institute said it has never by itself or in collaboration with other institutions conducted “any study exclusively on leatherback turtles of ANI”.
The only turtles-related study that the RTI response refers to is a 30-page report entitled ‘An assessment of the environmental sensitiveness of sea turtle nesting beaches of the Great Nicobar Island’. But this report is based on a survey undertaken after the director recorded his opinion at the standing committee meeting in January.
Curiously, B.C. Choudhury, a former scientist with the WII, said the WII has in fact undertaken research involving leatherback turtles at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands – including one under his supervision a decade ago. “This was a collaborative project with the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad,” Choudhury, who is the South Asia regional vice-chair for the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Marine Turtle Specialist Group, said. “I also collaborated on another project with the Indian Institute of Science and the Dakshin Foundation for the first satellite-tagging study on leatherback turtles here.”
“I am not sure why WII has taken the stand that it has not studied the leatherback in the islands.”
Another senior turtles-researcher aware of the issue said on condition of anonymity that “the WII director’s statement never made ecological sense”.
According to him, “The logic for connectivity between the Galathea River and the bay where it enters the sea and where the turtles nest was not clear. It is also not clear what mitigation plan is being proposed or how it will be implemented.”
Choudhury agreed, adding that director Mohan’s statement – that “connectivity between the river and the bay needs to be maintained” – is akin to the WII giving its professional and scientific okay for the port development project.
A Gurugram-based company called Aecom India Pvt. Ltd. had prepared a pre-feasibility report for NITI Aayog, entitled ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman and Nicobar Islands’. This report proposed two breakwaters 2.53 km and 1.37 km long to “provide round-the-year wave tranquillity,” for the port’s benefit. If these breakwaters are built, they will reduce the width of Galathea Bay’s opening from 3 km today to just 300 metres. This reduction would render it virtually impossible for the turtles to access their nesting sites – the beaches.
“Galathea isn’t a very wide bay, and with breakwaters constructed on both sides narrowing the entry into the bay and the adjacent beaches, I doubt leatherbacks will continue nesting there,” Muralidharan Manoharakrishnan, a turtle biologist with the Dakshin Foundation, said. “Unfortunately, I can’t think of any example – where once developmental activities were given clearance over a critical habitat and care was taken to ensure that the habitat survived afterwards – to use as precedent.”
An email to WII’s Mohan requesting his comment on his institute’s RTI reply hadn’t elicited a response at the time of publishing this article.
No compelling grounds
Lawyer and legal researcher Sreeja Chakraborty’s team had filed the RTI application with the WII. She said the sanctuary’s “denotification is illegal as per sections 18 and 26A of the Wildlife Act and Article 48A of the Constitution.”
Chakraborty added that the stand committee meeting’s minutes “indicate” that the islands’ administration was acting under the Centre’s orders, and had failed to “apply its mind and ask … as to why the intent to notify a sanctuary in 1997 should be overturned now in 2021.
“What are the compelling grounds? Where are the documents and the research to back this decision?”
Pankaj Sekhsaria has been researching issues of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over two decades. His most recent book, Waiting for Turtles, is an illustrated storybook for children on turtle-nesting in the Andamans. It is out this month in English and Hindi by Karadi Tales.