During the week-long hatching period, which fortunately coincides with their school's summer vacations, the children of fisherfolk gladly wake up before dawn and playfully hop around the soft sandy beach, involuntarily warding off turtle predators like crows and jackals.
To make things safer, one side of the beach is kept guarded by nets to restrict the entry of prowling dogs and jackals. With thousands of baby turtles creeping all over the five kilometre long coastal mass nesting site, the challenge for the children is not to run over the three-inch-long newborns while enjoying the gentle breeze at sunrise. The hatchlings usually emerge out of their breeding place at night and disappear into the sea subsequently.
As the urchins spot a baby turtle sneaking out of its feet-deep underground nest, they rush in and the excitement is at its peak when they discover 70-80 rare creatures breaking out of their egg shells to have a taste of life. Around 100-120 ping-pong ball sized eggs are laid by a mother turtle inside a single nest, out of which not more than 80 hatch.
Whenever rain water makes the sand harder, the children affably break soil from above the nest of the struggling newly-hatched Olive Ridleys, named after the olive colour of their heart-shaped shells. The ultimate goal is to send the toddlers safely to their maiden journey into the sea, for which the children carefully pick them up, carry them in baskets and release them close to the waterline.
Facing death at every stage, the mortality rate of the hatchlings, which develop over a period of 7-10 weeks, is usually quite high with only one out of every thousand surviving to become an adult. "We don't know much about nature and its conservation, but still enjoy every bit of our role in protecting the hatchlings. It is fun for us and that is how we make the most of our school holidays," says 11-year-old Trilochan Behra of Purunabandha village.
Previously estimated 1,55,000 Olive Ridleys, considered auspicious by many locals, had nested in a synchronised way along the coastline in March, the children had also cleared garbage on the beach to facilitate the breeding process. So do these poor child activists get any accolades for their unassuming efforts in saving the earth’s biodiversity by helping the fast dwindling turtle population in their fight against extinction?
Though most of them are not paid by the NGOs, but tourists, particularly foreigners, often dole out handsome tips as a token of appreciation for their enthusiasm. "Some tourists give us tips, others don’t. But we do the work out of our free will," says 14-year-old Maheswar Behra, a class eight student of Bharatiya Vidya Peeth.
To keep the spirits of these young green brigadiers high, local NGOs like the Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee treats them with a stupendous lunch and gifts them with sport equipments like cricket bats, once the baby turtles desert the beach. "We can't afford them to pay for their Samaritan work due to the lack of funds. But we manage to spend around Rs 8,000 in gifts and organising a party," Rabindranath Sahu, secretary of the NGO, the office of which also doubles up as a recreation centre for the kids, told reporters.
"As another incentive, we let them come here during the leisure hours - play games, read newspapers and magazines, etc. They also get to watch TV as we have the only DTH TV connection, with over 200 channels, in the entire village," he says.
With its activities at the nearby Gokharkuda village, the NGO Wildlife Society of Orissa (WSO), however, manages to pay many of its destitute child campaigners. "All thanks to the CSR (corporate social responsibility) efforts of some corporate houses like the menswear manufacturing company Turtle Ltd, we get the funds to pay them," says Biswajit Mohanty, says its secretary.