FIGHTING U-BOAT FOR ENDANGERED SEA TURTLES LANDS VISAKHA SPCA FOUNDER IN HOT WATER

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2000:

VISAKHAPATNAM, India– – A brave commander and two soldiers defending women and children huddled on a beach against invasion by submarine is the stuff of action movies.

But soft-spoken Visakha SPCA founder Pradeep Kumar Nath, of Visakhapatnam, India, is trying to defend endangered olive ridley sea turtle females and their hatchlings from the navy of his own nation. His weapon of last resort, after all efforts at gentle persuasion failed, was to seek a High Court writ protecting the Visakhapatnam beach against Indian Navy incursion.

Now Nath himself and two Visakha SPCA employees are formally charged with criminally handling wildlife, falsifying evidence, and attempted extortion.

Rumors accuse them of worse.

Recounted Nath to ANIMAL PEOPLE, “The Indian Navy has started the construction of a museum on the beach sand,” to consist of “pulling up a decommissioned submarine and ship. They are set to occupy a site of 200 meters in length and 30 meters in width, coinciding with the point of greatest concentration of sea turtle nestings. I objected and asked them to leave a strip 10 meters wide for the turtles. As there was no cooperation from them, the Visakha SPCA board decided to file a writ in court. Even after filing, we continued to seek an agreement to leave the 10-meter strip out of the project.”

The submarine-and-ship exhibit will have no military value. Described as “educational,” it appears to be chiefly a gimick meant to stimulate waterfront commerce––which ecotourism could do instead.

Citing statistics from successful sea turtle-based ecotourism projects elsewhere in Asia, as well as around the world, Nath has described the local opportunities to indifferent civic officials and conservation organizations countless times over the years.

Since January 1997 Nath has also implored ANIMAL PEOPLE to come and see the turtles in person, to affirm his testimony about the magnitude of a natural spectacle which mostly goes unappreciated amid the hubbub of Visakhapatnam, reputedly India’s fastest-growing city.

Yet Nath is accused of committing economic sabotage against his community.

Amid an ascendance of Hindu nationalism punctuated by outbursts of armed conflict with Pakistan, raising military prestige, Nath is also treated as a veritable traitor.

Yet Nath and the Visakha SPCA have also literally come under fire in recent months for their efforts to interdict illegal cow slaughter, including the illegal export of tens of thousands of cattle to be slaughtered in Bangladesh. The cattle slaughtering and exporting violates many of the most basic teachings of the Hindu and Jain religions, as well as Indian civil law.

Nath and the handful of Visakha SPCA paid staff have had their lives threatened many times. On the night of April 2, 2000 an unknown person believed to have been involved in cattle trafficking torched their thatch-roofed cow shelter.

No April Fool

On April 7, Nath traveled to New Delhi on other animal protection business. He left the Visakhapatnam beach under supervision, he said, of two “turtle-watchers employed to spot nesting turtles and guard nests by erasing the tracks of the female turtles upon their return to the water.” Nath himself has used the track-erasing technique for many years to discourage human poaching and nestraiding by dogs, foxes, and jackals, and has documented his work with detailed reports covering each nesting season since 1996. ANIMAL PEOPLE has received copies of each report as Nath as completed them.

“Since we filed the writ petition,” Nath continued, “the Forest Department and others kept harassing us with inspections of the nests we were protecting outside the construction area. On April 9, at 4:30 a.m., one of my turtle-watchers in all good intention shifted a low-lying nest laid near the water to a higher position. The Forest Department took this opportunity to charge him and me, even though I was not there, and accused me and the Visakha SPCA of bringing the nests from far-off places and planting them near the construction to sabotage their ambitious project. They have instituted three criminal cases against us. They have accused us through the media of trying to stop the museum project by foul means.

“Then,” Nath added, “Andhra University professor M.V. Subba Rao and his disciple Dr. Rajshekar reported that the other nests at the site had also been brought from elsewhere and that the nests consist of eggs from different turtles which were many days old. By this incident they have weakened my case filed in the High Court.”

Nath has clashed with Rao, Rajshekar, and other influential local conservation experts before––some of whom have local Indian Navy connections.

In December 1998, for instance, Nath described to ANIMAL PEOPLE h o w , after two years of successfully protecting turtle nests, he “approached every available institution for help, even the World Wildlife Fund. To my dismay,” Nath wrote, “the WWF complained to the Conservator of Forests that I was poaching the sea turtles’ eggs. I sent to the WWF head office in Switzerland a 20-page letter which got the regional WWF head sacked,” Nath explained, but the replacement was “a retired person whose only help was the suggestion that I should meet his brother in the Navy, who can ask the Naval Officers Wives Association to assist me.”

That eggs from different turtles are in some of the same nests and are of different ages should be no mystery: sea turtles routinely disturb each other’s nests as they dig.

“I fail to understand,” Nath concluded in describing the most recent turns of events, “how after four years of our doing a hectic and dedicated job to protect the turtles, they can say the turtles are not coming here. My reports from the previous three years show the number of nestings on this beach,” he reminded. “In this stretch of four kilometres alone there were 122 nestings, while Dr. Rajshekar claims that not more than 20 can come. I only wish that these people would walk the beach with me all night for four months,” Nath said. “Then they would realize that not everything happens as in theory.”

Character witnesses

A volunteer humane worker and conservationist who works as a bank clerk and dedicates half his wages to animal protection, Nath is saluted by many internationally respected witnesses for his selflessness and ability to stretch donations to the utmost.

One such witness is Australian author Christine Townend, who emigrated to India in 1991 to become managing trustee of Help In Suffering. In that capacity Townend directs animal hospitals and shelters in Jaipur and Durgapura.

Nath rises each morning at 4:30 a.m., Townend wrote to ANIMAL PEOPLE after visiting Visakhapatnam, “to patrol the nearby beaches to ensure no olive ridley turtles are on the sand, where they face the risk of killing by dogs, rats, or humans. He then purchases food with his own money and feeds colonies of dogs and cats. After this, he returns to his house where he feeds 11 rescued animals, whom he has nowhere else to keep. He works as a clerk at the State Bank of India,” Townsend continued, “and has refused promotion because he does not wish to be transferred to another city where he cannot watch over the street dogs and the turtles. He sleeps about four hours a night.”

Another witness of note is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals founder Ingrid Newkirk, who based the current international PETA campaign on behalf of Indian cattle largely on Nath’s investigations.

The most influential witness to Nath’s dedication in India is Maneka Gandhi, the Indian minister of state for social welfare and empowerment. Known globally for her love of animals, Gandhi is nearly as noted within India for her politically reckless denunciations of corruption. Her staff tried unsuccessfully to help ANIMAL PEOPLE and Lily Venizelos of the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles to obtain answers about the case against Nath and the Visakha SPCA from Indian minister of defense George Fernandez, Andhra Pradesh prime minister N. Chandra Babu Naidu, and Visakhapatnam commissioner of police K. Durga Prasad.

Fernandez is already unpopular with the international animal protection community for his role in causing the slow and painful April 28 demise of Jaya, a three-year-old Indian elephant. Fernandez reportedly donated Jaya to Japan as a New Year’s gift, insisting that she be delivered immediately. Trucked 660 miles from a zoo in Gauhati in northeastern Assam over rough roads in bitterly cold weather, and not allowed off the truck for the first two days of the journey, Jayas fell circa January 6, suffering a cripping leg injury. She actually got no farther than the Prince of Wales Zoological Gardens in Lucknow, arriving on January 8. There the staff tried to save her with a regimen including daily breakfasts of eggs with powdered milk and a quarter bottle of rum. Following her death from an infection, necropsy discovered that Jaya had also endured three broken ribs.

“N. Chandra Babu Naidu was the chief guest at a valedictory function” sponsored by the Andhra Pradesh office of the World Wildlife Fund, according to the WWFIndia web site, which also boasts that the Andhra Pradesh office has “generated awareness for the protection of olive ridley sea turtles,” but mentions no specifics.

WTO claims

Meanwhile the Nath case calls into question the integrity of the entire Indian position on sea turtle conservation––the hottest of the many issues raised at the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle during late November and early December 1999. India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Thailand won a WTO ruling in August 1998 that the U.S. embargo on imports of shrimp from nations which do not require shrimpers to tow Turtle Excluder Devices in their nets is a “process standard.” The plaintiffs argued successfully that the TED rule chiefly protects U.S. shrimp producers from foreign competition, and that sea turtles are already adequately protected in southern Asia––where most shrimp are farmed rather than netted from the wild––because their nesting habitat is protected.

Indeed, Indian sea turtle nesting beaches are increasingly well-protected, between government conservation efforts and those of hundreds of individuals who like Nath devote their nights to patroling and covering tracks. North of Visakhapatnam, 700,000 olive ridley sea turtles nested this spring along the Orissa coast––100,000 more than when the annual counts began circa 1986. This is believed to be more than 70% of all the olive ridley sea turtles in the world.

However, as many as 40,000 sea turtles washed up dead on Orissa beaches in 1999, according to Earth Island Institute sea turtle project coordinator Todd Steiner. Most are believed to have drowned in fishing nets.

In addition, there were almost no nestings in 1997 and 1998 at Gahirmatha, normally the most heavily used nesting beach.

The Indian sea turtle numbers far exceed those of the U.S., where nestings are counted in the low thousands and the 340 turtle deaths recorded along beaches on the Outer Banks of North Carolina this spring were a new record toll. The U.S. victims also are believed to have mostly drowned in fishnets.

[Lily Venizoles of the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles, based in Athens, Greece, asks that letters on Nath’s behalf be sent to George Fernandez, Union Minister for Defence, South Block, New Delhi 110 001, India; N. Chandra Babu Naidu, Chief Minister, Government of Andhra Pradesh, Secretariat, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India; and K. Durga Prasad, Commissioner of Police, Police Barracks, Commissionerate, Visakhapatnam 530001, Andhra Pradesh, India. Letters to Indian embassies and consulates might also help.]

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