Morjim (Goa): In the tussle between sea turtle conservation and Goa`s beach tourism dollars, both appear to be getting the short shrift. While the nestings of the endangered Olive Ridley turtles have declined over the year in the face of the exponential growth in tourism, environmental concerns now threaten the future of Goan beach shacks, especially those on the turtle nesting sites.
Beach shack operators are now worried that a petition before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) by a local NGO seeking proper conservation of Goa`s beaches could result in a ban on shacks on ecologically sensitive beaches, especially the sandy patches where Olive Ridleys crawl up once every year to lay eggs.
"Tourism is our bread and butter. Banning beach shacks will deny employment to hundreds of youths in these three/four beaches where turtles come to lay eggs," Cruz Cardozo, convener of the Shack Owners Welfare Society (SOWS), told IANS. The society represents a sizable chunk of owners of beach shacks - unmistakable coconut thatch-covered haunts which sell everything from chicken cafreal to chocolate pancakes to chilled beer by the sea.
The four beaches Cardozo referred to are Morjim, Agonda and Gagibaga, where most Olive Ridleys annually come to nest, with a rare nesting or two at Mandrem.
These beaches, which were once relatively virgin and of lesser fame than their popular counterparts like Calangute and Baga, have over the years also seen a huge number of tourists flocking there, causing a clash of sorts between conservation of turtles and exposure to tourism.
Take the case of the Morjim beach.
It was a quiet beach, 30 km north of Panaji, until a new bridge over the Chapora river connecting Siolim to Chopdem, an adjoining village, opened the tourism floodgates to what was once a sleepy fishing village a decade ago.
Now, it is a favoured beach haunt for Russian tourists and its nightlife is slowly giving other popular beach destinations like Calangute and Anjuna a run for their money.
Not very good news for the 100-lb (pound) Olive Ridleys that also prefer the beach at night, but only to crawl up quietly like soldiers on a stealth mission, before burrowing a pit in sand and laying eggs, about 100 at a time.
In 2001, there were 33 turtle nesting sites at the Morjim beach. Only 11 were reported in 2011, the worst since the turtle conservation movement formally started at Morjim in 1996. The trends are similar on the other three beaches.
Olive Ridley sea turtles are an endangered species and they are awarded the highest degree of protection under the Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act. So much so that even stealing the turtle`s eggs or in any manner disturbing the turtles or their habitat is a punishable offence.
Cardozo believes that turtles should have a place on Goa`s beaches, but not at the cost of tourism, which provides employment to locals and foreign exchange for the country.
"The first priority has to be given to human beings," he said, adding that SOWS was in the process of filing an intervention petition in the NGT to put its point of view across.
While Cardozo`s view is commerce first, wildlife conservationist Prerna Singh Bindra presented the other side of the coin, arguing in favour of Goa`s oldest tourists, the Olive Ridleys. There are laws, she said, but they aren`t working.
"These pristine beaches have attracted hotels, restaurants, cafes, shacks, shops and other such structures. October heralds the tourist season, which coincides with the turtle`s mating and nesting period, and yet illegal shacks, bath beds and cafes line the shore. These tightly packed illegal structures leave little room for a turtle or its nest. Garbage litters the beach and parties cause havoc through the night," she noted.
Goa annually attracts over 2.5 million tourists to its famous beaches. Half a million of them are foreigners.