A Sea of Hope – Glimpses into Marine Rescue and Rehabilitation
It all began in 2004 when a 16-year-old boy, Dhaval Kansara, along with Sachin Mangela, a local fisherman, discovered a female Olive Ridley sea turtle laying eggs on Chikhale beach in Maharashtra’s Dahanu subdivision. They collected her eggs, incubated them in a hatchery at a fisherman’s house, and released the hatchlings into the sea after two months. 17 years later, Kansara ‘s NGO, Wildlife Conservation and Animal Welfare Association (WCAWA) along with the Maharashtra Forest Department and the Mangrove Cell run a successful turtle rescue and rehabilitation center at Dahanu.
Olive Ridley turtles, locally known as “langdi kahad” in Maharashtra (translated as “crippled turtle”), together with other sea turtles are a Schedule I species protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of India, 1972. However, with rising ocean pollution, habitat destruction, commercial fishing practices and illegal trade, endangered sea turtle species are becoming increasingly threatened. As their populations decline, their ability to perform vital roles in maintaining the health of the oceans is also diminishing. Increased fishing activity along nesting beaches and associated incidental catch have detrimental effects on sea turtles, resulting in an overall decline of the species’ migration to Indian waters.
Dahanu, a biodiversity-rich coastal belt of 35 km is located in Maharashtra’s Palghar district, about a hundred kilometers from Mumbai. It’s wide intertidal zone provides rich feeding grounds for shorebirds and is also a popular site for migratory birds. In preceding years, Dahanu was a major nesting site for Olive Ridley turtles and a minor nesting beach for Green sea turtles. Olive Ridleys would come ashore and nest on Dahanu beaches until 2007, and Kansara and Mangela released about 500 hatchlings into the sea between 2004 and 2007. However, due to its historical overexploitation and pollution due to industrialization, Dahanu’s coastline has ceased to function as a nesting site for these turtles.
Kansara witnessed this decline firsthand as he observed a complete stop in turtle nesting on Dahanu’s beaches after 2007. This warning sign, along with repeated calls about distressed wildlife and sea turtle stranding, led them to begin patrolling beaches. The washing ashore of a dead Olive Ridley turtle in 2010 prompted Kansara to take the lead in identifying the threats and problems affecting sea turtle conservation near Dahanu. He started conducting extensive awareness programs which informed local communities about what to do when stranded or injured sea turtles washed up ashore. In 2012, Kansara along with fellow nature enthusiasts founded the Wildlife Conservation and Wildlife Welfare Association (WCAWA).
On one occasion, WCAWA volunteers found an injured Olive Ridley sea turtle washed ashore. Not knowing how to treat the stranded sea turtle, they brought it to the Dahanu forest department but soon learnt that there existed no facility to treat and accommodate it. Recognizing a glaring gap in infrastructure to treat and accommodate stranded sea turtles, Dhaval Kansara along with Mr. Narwane, the Deputy Chief Conservator of Forests, Dahanu division established a transit center near the Dahanu forest office premises.
The WCAWA team along with the Forest Department and Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar, a reptile veterinarian from Mumbai, also developed a first-of-its-kind sea turtle treatment center. Starting with a small 3ft X 3ft plastic pool filled with seawater to keep sea turtles alive, the facility grew to include two concrete swimming pools, two rooms for turtle treatment, along with arrangements to pump seawater in 2013. Subsequently, the Vasant J. Sheth Memorial Foundation also donated five Fiber Plastic isolation tanks to WCAWA to facilitate the rehabilitation treatment of ill and infected sea turtles, which allowed each turtle to receive individual care.
The first sea turtle was treated in a small pit in 2013
Two concrete swimming pools made in Dahanu forest Department to adhere to injured turtles individually
The seawater filtration unit for the tank
Many turtles rescued from traumatic injuries at sea would also often be missing one or more flippers—some were caught in fishing nets, some hit by boats, while still others ingested toxic trash. To improve the mobility and quality of life of turtles missing flippers, Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar invented prosthetic fiberglass flippers, named as Danahu Flippers eponymous of the site of their invention. Namo was the first turtle to be non-surgically fitted with these flippers. The idea is to fit these prosthetic flippers for a short period of time under supervision, so as to help the turtles get back their confidence to start moving again.
Prosthetic flipper attached non-surgically to facilitate swimming
Another important infrastructural intervention has been regarding the transportation of injured turtles, who would earlier be transported by local conservationists on motorbikes. The WACWA now runs a sea turtle rescue and treatment ambulance capable of accommodating up to five rescuers, thanks to animal rights activist Fiza Navaneet Lal Shah’s kind donation in 2015. Further, in 2018, Mr. Maharshi Dave and Mrs. Rutu Dave from Mumbai donated gas anesthesia to enable painless surgeries of injured animals.
The WACWA’s multipronged approach to turtle conservation also includes creating more awareness about the importance of marine biodiversity in schools and colleges to bring local youth into the fray. The Mangrove Cell, Maharashtra Forest Department and, the State Fisheries Department have also initiated a joint compensation scheme under which fishermen who release the protected animals such as sea turtles are entangled in their fishing nets are given monetary compensation up to Rs.25,000.
Till date, the Dahanu sea turtle treatment center has rescued more than 300 sea turtles and released many back to sea after treatment under the supervision of DCF Mallikarjun , DCF Ladkat, and DCF Vijay Bhise. The current center rescues and rehabilitates over 60 turtles every year, despite having basic facilities. The Mangrove Cell, along with the Local Forest Department and WCAWA’S network, has now spread far and wide, and they receive rescue calls from as far as Sindhudurg, over 700 km away. The WCAWA leads a range of conservation-focused activities, including day and nighttime beach patrols, collecting data about population dynamics, rescue, and rehabilitation with a special focus on sea turtles and other wildlife.
Rescue ops conducted by the WCAWA team and local informants
Dhaval Kansara and Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar releasing a Green sea turtle
A decade ago, the same fishermen who would hack away at turtles entangled in their expensive nets, leaving them to drown, now call the WCAWA. They are well aware that turtles are a protected species, that they can apply for compensation for damaged nets, and that they should be proud of the natural heritage they are helping to protect.
However, there is still a long road ahead. While several species of turtles, including the Olive Ridley, Green Sea turtles, Hawksbills and Loggerheads, have been rescued so far, there has also been a simultaneous increase in the number of turtles being washed ashore on the coastal stretch. There is an urgent need to upgrade the current center with facilities like an X-ray machine, sea turtle hospital tanks, dry docking tanks electric cautery machines, laser therapy unit, turtle carrying trolleys, endoscopes, seawater filtration units, etc. to uphold international treatment protocols and provide ethical treatment to injured animals. While the current focus of rehabilitation is sea turtles, what is ultimately required is an overall strategy for all marine animal rehabilitation based on the available resources in the region.