Friday, December 08, 2006

Satellites to keep track on turtles

Statesman News Service

KENDRAPARA, Nov. 30: Stung by conservationists’ criticism that oil exploration along the Orissa coast will adversely affect the marine ecology, the state forest department and Wildlife Institute of India have joined hands to closely monitor the path of one million of Olive Ridley sea turtles, visiting the Gahirmatha coast from January to March every year, through satellite telemetry tracking technology.

Turtle experts have the view that it is imprudent to allow offshore oil drilling in the sea perilously close to the maximum turtle concentration zones.

The novel satellite study on these threatened species, the itinerant path of which has largely remained unexplored, would start once the turtles start arriving at the Gahirmatha nesting ground to lay eggs, according to officials.

About 70 turtles will be handpicked for experiment with satellite telemetry application. After fitted with telemetry, they would be released in the wild. Its track and path of movement would be minutely observed by WII scientists, said the Bhitarkanika forest officials.

The divisional forest officer, Bhitarkanika forest (mangrove) division, Mr Ajay Kumar Jena, said the satellite application on turtles would start shortly under the stewardship of scientists of Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. He refused to elaborate on.

Though the experiment to track the turtles’ itinerant path through satellite telemetry technique had earlier been conducted in 2001, it was not a great success. Four female turtles fitted with satellite transmitters and released in the wild near the Devi river mouth nesting ground hardly moved long distance and were sighted roaming along the Bay of Bengal coast. The telemetry fitted then had reportedly developed technical snags and as a result these species are learnt to have gone out of sight.

While one of the turtle advanced up to Jaffna off Sri Lankan coast, two others roamed on the Bay of Bengal coast before making their annual journey to Orissa coast for mass nesting. The latest satellite tracking experiment on turtles would commence during early 2007 after turtles make their annual rendezvous to Gahirmatha rookery for mass nesting, officials of Bhitarkanika national park said.

The Union government has accorded nod to oil exploration work by corporate giant Reliance Industries and Oil and Natural Gas Commission along the Mahanadi river basis area.
After the conservationists raised voice, the environment ministry had directed the RIL to stop oil drilling during the nesting season.

Of the two midsea blocks, where RIL has taken to oil exploration reserve, one of the blocks is right on the return path of these migratory species who travel long distances to nest along the Gahirmatha coast.

The satellite telemetry tracking of these species was given a serious thought to scientifically establish whether the oil drilling block is swarmed by breeding turtles. The satellite study will also examine the impact of human interference on the turtles and other marine species.

The oil exploring companies had contended that the turtle congregation areas thrived on the near shore which is 10 nautical miles off the coast. The offshore drilling beyond 50 nautical miles will not affect the turtles, the oil companies had maintained citing similar explorations in the USA and Gulf of Mexico.

The satellite tracking being done this time is in accordance with recommendation of Multi-disciplinary Expert Group (MEG) constituted by the Union forest and environment ministry, said officials of the state forest department.



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