A long, scenic but unpaved road led me to Velas. This small Maharastrian village by the Arabian sea arrived earlier than I had expected it to. Probably it was used to surprising people, in the same way that its stories would surprise me later.
It wasn’t until an hour later that I bumped into Mohan. His small frame & enthusiastic smile defied his age. You would be forgiven to think that he is in his late twenties. Well, he is exactly a decade older. ‘I do what I love, maybe that’s why I look younger’ he said almost with a blush.
Also it is difficult to believe that this is the same man who is revered by an entire village. The respectful tone villagers’ use for him sets you up for an ageing, spectacled conservationist.
But conservationist he is and quite a good one. About 16,000 Olive Ridley turtles have Mohan and his friends to thank. Those are the number of eggs that the team at Velas has helped hatch over the past few years. Mohan & the villagers credit Bhau Katdare of the Sahyadri Nisarg Mitra Mandal for realizing that the Olive Ridley turtle population in Velas needed help.
The eggs laid by the turtles were taken away both by foxes and birds. In some cases people would steal them from the beach too. To protect the eggs, Bhau and Mohan built a hatchery. They also understood that this effort would be futile without the involvement of the villagers. That’s how the awareness effort on the importance of the turtle took wings.
The road wasn’t easy. But some conscious tourists helped. Their arrival to watch the turtles started turning things around slowly. And Mohan was a big catalyst in this process.
I requested Mohan if I could spend an entire day with him and he agreed. Not without his trademark smile though. It is not easy to be him. For someone who spent his childhood and early twenties in Mumbai, he has adapted to village life quite well.
It was a bout of jaundice that brought him to his ancestral village. The doctor suggested that he could do with more fresh air and less work stress. Staying close to the beach, amidst trees and animals was the motivation says Mohan. But he had never imagined that conservation would become the mission of his life. It was Bhau Katdare who mentored Mohan into what he agrees is his real calling.
Spend a few hours with him, which I did, and it’s easy to see that birds & animals are really important to him. I counted at least five dogs and equal number of cats at his traditional Konkan house. Add to that a bird which is nursing a wing injury.
His day starts at 4.30am. First task is milking the cows and then having the milk delivered to households within a radius of 3 kilometers. This is followed by the mandatory visit to the beach. Mohan has to check whether eggs have been laid by turtles or if they are hatched on a daily basis.
He spends the rest of the day speaking to people, managing home stays, speaking to interested tourists and making plans for the vulture conservation project. He is quite a busy man. But not once did I see the smile missing in the twenty four hours that I chased him.
And within all this, Mohan also manages to rescue other animals. Like this one time when he stopped angry villagers from killing a cobra which had managed to enter a house. He locked himself alone in the room with the reptile. He had spent an hour trying to calm down the female snake. The entire village had gathered outside with sticks and stones waiting for Mohan to give up. The snake finally relented and entered the pipe placed by Mohan with jute bag tied at the other end. He then managed to set her free in the forest adjoining the village.
It was the first instance when a snake had made it out alive from a Velas household. This and other feats in Velas were possible only because of Mohan’s courage, sacrifice and commitment for animal conservation.Whether saving the snake or the turtle eggs – at the root of all this is the love Mohan has for animals and his mission to make fellow human beings treat them with respect. I came out of Mohan’s house alive too. Alive with the desire of doing whatever I can, in my little way, to respect creatures with whom we share our planet.