It is peak nesting season for Olive Ridley turtles as several thousand make their way to the Andhra Pradesh coast to lay eggs.
Of all the areas along the coast, one of the most prominent places where the turtles lay their eggs are the beaches of the coastal city of Visakhapatnam.
However, even as some areas see an increase in nesting, human activity along the city's beaches have resulted in a decline in nesting, say activists.
Though not endangered, Olive Ridley turtles are considered a vulnerable species and activists and the administration in Visakhapatnam have worked actively in the past to ensure a higher survival rate.
"I would say that status quo is being maintained due to the decrease in some areas and increase in others," says Pradeep Kumar Nath, one of the founders of the Visakha Society for Protection and Care of Animals (VSPCA).
The VSPCA has been working to save Olive Ridleys since 1996.
"However, as Visakhapatnam is being promoted as a major tourist destination and has also been declared a 'smart city', a lot of human activity has resulted in at least a 20% decline in nesting in places like RK beach," he adds.
While the official figures on how many turtles visited the beaches will only be announced after nesting season in May-end, activists are already concerned.
"There is a lot of construction activity and human activity like games, along with a relaxation in Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms in a bid to draw larger crowds. This might really upset the nesting next year," Pradeep says.
'Dilution of CRZ norms'
"On the policy level, there are a few concerns with the dilution of the 2011 CRZ regulations beginning from this year, as the tourism industry which had to stay at least 200 metres away from the coast, can now come up to 50 metres from the coast," explains Sohan Hatangadi, a city-based historian and a long-time resident.
"The policy is a double whammy as the tourism industry always wanted to be closer to the coast for a better customer experience, but it will definitely impact the environment in the sea," he adds.
However, Sohan believes that while there wouldn't be short-term repercussions to the change in the norms, the effect would be disastrous after a few years.
"Our present nesting grounds are well protected as activists and officials of the state government are invested in the cause. However, what will impact the turtles are tourists who visit the beach and leave trash like plastic all over the place. Lot of turtles have been devouring polythene covers and wash up dead on the beach. Mechanised boats and trawlers without Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) are another main concern," Sohan says.
In fact, in January this year, five turtles washed ashore at the city's RK Beach in a single day.
Decline after success
The possibility of a decline in the number of turtles nesting at Visakhapatnam is especially disheartening, as the VSPCA recorded a whopping 100% increase in nestings from 343 in 2015-2016 to 705 in 2016-2017.
They also saw a big rise in hatchlings from 32,742 in 2015-2016 to 65,044 in 2016-2017.
In an annual report filed by the animal rights group at the time, it said that Cyclone Hudhud which lashed the state in 2014 actually worked in their favour and improved the success rate in the hatchlings, "because the old sand was replaced with new and completely non-polluted sand."
However, with the new sand slowly getting polluted again, activists fear that things will only go downhill if the state decides to promote further human activity on the beaches under the ambit of tourism.
"The move can become counter-productive if underlying conditions are not laid down strictly. People should not be allowed to stray too close to the hatcheries and they shouldn't misuse the privilege they get. The idea is to get people interested in the whole process, but make sure that there is a boundary so it doesn't affect the turtles," Pradeep says.
"The situation is dicey. While the turtles are safe for this year and we might see good results, in another five to six years, we will be badly hit," Sohan says.
According to National Geographic, Olive Ridley turtles get their name from the colour of their shell, which is initially grey, but turns olive green once the turtle becomes an adult. The female turtles usually lay about a hundred eggs and are capable of nesting three times a year.
The uniqueness of the species is that a baby turtle can retrace its birth place and matured mothers who were born many years ago, come back to lay eggs at the same spot.
With this in mind, authorities and NGOs have set up five major nesting centres on the beach stretch between Vizag to Bheemili, including in RK Beach, Jodugudlapalem, Kailasagiri, Appu Ghar, Bheemli, and Tandatadi, besides increasing the number of hatcheries.