Turtle friendly missiles

India's ambitious missile programme seems to have turned turtle. Highly placed officials of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in Baliapal, Orissa, say they have postponed their testing of an improved version of the Agni missile for the second time. The move, they say, aims to help mass nesting of Olive Ridley turtles in the Gahirmatha rookery, the largest in the world.

It may be mentioned that preparations for the test were on at DRDO's base in Wheelers Islands, a few kilometres from the rookery and in the path of the turtles' route to the Orissa coast from Sri Lanka Pacific. The first test was supposed to be held between October and November 1998. It was postponed to between February and March. The turtles mate between October and November and then nest in January and once again in May.

The Olive Ridleys have not mated in Orissa for two consecutive years since 1997, when thousands of turtles were killed by fishing trawlers and other human activities while nesting. This year, too, the trend continued.

Though the DRDO has not cited any reasons for the postponement of tests, it is learnt that it was done keeping in mind its promise to stop activities during the mass nesting seasons of the Olive Ridley turtles. "This time it was just a coincidence that the test was during the nesting season of the turtles. Keeping our promise to help in conservation of Ridleys, we postponed it', says an official. In 1997, at an international seminar in Bhubaneswar, Abdul Kalam, the DRDO chief, promised to stop all activities on Wheelers Islands during nesting seasons and also assured assistance in conserving the endangered species.