Nachiket Kelkar

Alumnus, Oceans and Coasts

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M.Sc. (Wildlife Biology and Conservation)

Nachiket Kelkar worked with the Oceans and Coasts programme understanding the ecological and socio-cultural drivers of conflict between green turtles and fishers in the seagrass meadows of the Lakshadweep Islands (2009-2013).  In addition, he assisted in a range of other projects including our long-term monitoring of climate-change impacts on coral reefs and occupancy studies of dugongs in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Nachiket continues to actively collaborate with NCF and is currently pursuing his PhD on rivers and floodplain systems at ATREE. 

Nachiket's major research interests are in the ecology of freshwater and marine ecosystems, statistics, spatial ecology, population ecology, environmental sociology and history.


Agatti 20rubble

Coping with catastrophe

Documenting patterns and processes of resilience in the Lakshadweep reefs

Boat 20and 20turtle

Turf Wars

Understanding turtle-fisher conflicts in Lakshadweep seagrass meadows


  • Journal Article
    In press
    Irrigation demands aggravate fishing threats to river dolphins in Nepal
    Gopal Khanal, Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi, Keshav Dutt Awasthi, Maheshwar Dhakale, Naresh Subedi, Dipendra Nath, Ram Chandra Kandel, Nachiket Kelkar
    Biological Conservation,

    PDF, 1.05 MB

    Riverine species are adapted to natural habitat changes caused by seasonal flood-pulses. However, abrupt river channel changes following flooding events intersect with social systems of land and water management (e.g. agriculture, fisheries) and in turn generate significant consequences for conservation of endangered aquatic species. We investigated tradeoffs between changing river habitat availability and exposure to fishing intensity for a small population of Ganges River dolphins Platanista gangetica gangeticain the Karnali basin of Nepal. A major natural flooding event in the Karnali basin in 2010 caused the river channel to shift from the Geruwa (flows through a protected area where fishing is restricted) to the Karnali channel (high fishing activity, agriculture-dominated), where dolphins moved in response. Based on our survey data (2009–2015) and long-term hydrological trends in the basin, we found that irrigation diversions since 2012 had aggravated fishing impacts on dolphins, suggesting that their new habitat had become an ‘ecological trap’. Regression models showed that at low river depths, fishing intensity negatively affected dolphin abundance, but at higher depths no effect of fishing was observed. Two records of dolphin bycatch in gillnets confirmed this, as both events corresponded with periods of sudden increase in water abstraction for irrigation. Overall, dolphin distribution shifted downstream and the population declined from 11 in 2012 to 6 in 2015. Effective protection of this river dolphin population from extinction will require the Government of Nepal to prioritize ecologically adequate river flow regimes for implementing efficient irrigation schemes and adaptive fisheries regulations in the Karnali basin.

  • Dataset
    Long-lived groupers require structurally stable reefs in the face of repeated climate change disturbances.
    Karkarey R, Kelkar N, Lobo AS, Alcoverro T, Arthur R (2014) Data from: Long-lived groupers require structurally stable reefs in the face of repeated climate change disturbances. Dryad Digital Repository.
  • Journal Article
    Long-lived benthic predators require structurally stable reefs in the face of repeated climate-change disturbances
    Coral Reefs. 33: 289-302

    Benthic recovery from climate-related disturbances does not always warrant a commensurate functional recovery for reef-associated fish communities. Here, we examine the distribution of benthic groupers (family Serranidae) in coral reef communities from the Lakshadweep archipelago (Arabian Sea) in response to structural complexity and long-term habitat stability. These coral reefs that have been subject to two major El Nin ̃o Southern Oscillation-related coral bleaching events in the last decades (1998 and 2010). First, we employ a long-term (12-yr) benthic- monitoring dataset to track habitat structural stability at twelve reef sites in the archipelago. Structural stability of reefs was strongly driven by exposure to monsoon storms and depth, which made deeper and more sheltered reefs on the eastern aspect more stable than the more exposed (western) and shallower reefs. We surveyed groupers (species richness, abundance, biomass) in 60 sites across the entire archipelago, representing both exposures and depths. Sites were selected along a gradient of structural complexity from very low to high. Grouper biomass appeared to vary with habitat stability with significant differences between depth and exposure; sheltered deep reefs had a higher grouper biomass than either sheltered shallow or exposed (deep and shallow) reefs. Species richness and abundance showed similar (though not significant) trends. More interestingly, average grouper biomass increased exponentially with structural complexity, but only at the sheltered deep (high stability) sites, despite the availability of recovered structure at exposed deep and shallow sites (lower-stability sites). This trend was especially pronounced for long-lived groupers (life span [10 yrs). These results suggest that long-lived groupers may prefer temporally stable reefs, independent of the local availability of habitat structure. In reefs subject to repeated disturbances, the presence of structurally stable reefs may be critical as refuges for functionally important, long-lived species like groupers.

  • Journal Article
    Seagrasses in the age of sea turtle conservation and shark overfishing
    Heithaus, M.R., Teresa Alcoverro, Rohan Arthur, Burkholder, D.A, Coates, K.A, Christianen, M.J.A., Nachiket Kelkar, Manuel, S.A, Wirsing, A.J., Kenworthy, W.J., Fourqurean, J.W.
    Frontiers in Marine Science 1:28. doi: 10.3389/fmars. 2014.00028.

    PDF, 1.95 MB

    Efforts to conserve globally declining herbivorous green sea turtles have resulted in promising growth of some populations. These trends could significantly impact critical ecosystem services provided by seagrass meadows on which turtles feed. Expanding turtle populations could improve seagrass ecosystem health by removing seagrass biomass and preventing of the formation of sediment anoxia. However, overfishing of large sharks, the primary green turtle predators, could facilitate turtle populations growing beyond historical sizes and trigger detrimental ecosystem impacts mirroring those on land when top predators were extirpated. Experimental data from multiple ocean basins suggest that increasing turtle populations can negatively impact seagrasses, including triggering virtual ecosystem collapse. Impacts of large turtle populations on seagrasses are reduced in the presence of intact shark populations. Healthy populations of sharks and turtles, therefore, are likely vital to restoring or maintaining seagrass ecosystem structure, function, and their value in supporting fisheries and as a carbon sink.

  • Journal Article
    Greener pastures? High-density feeding aggregations of green turtles precipitate species shifts in seagrass meadows
    Journal of Ecology. 101: 1158-1168

    1. Historical declines of marine megaherbivores have led to a view of seagrass communities structured largely by abiotic disturbance and plant competition. There is, however, growing recognition of the significance of top-down control through herbivory, on seagrass ecosystem processes, raising the question of how meadows functioned under historically high populations of megaherbivores. 2. We assess the impacts of such intense herbivory on seagrass meadow composition in the Lakshadweep islands (India), where high-density feeding aggregations of green turtles have persisted for over a decade. We use a series of complementary approaches: (i) natural herbivory exclosures (ii) published data on seagrass composition before and after turtles established (at one atoll: Agatti) and (iii) present species composition along a turtle herbivory gradient over multiple atolls. read more, download the full paper

  • Journal Article
    Green turtle herbivory dominates the fate of seagrass primary production in the Lakshadweep islands (Indian Ocean)
    Marine Ecology Progress Series. 485:235-243

    Historical global declines of megaherbivores from marine ecosystems have hitherto contributed to an understanding of seagrass meadow production dominated by detrital path- ways — a paradigm increasingly being questioned by recent re-evaluations of the importance of herbivory. Recoveries in green turtle populations at some locations provide an ideal opportunity to examine effects of high megaherbivore densities on the fate of seagrass production. We conducted direct field measurements of aboveground herbivory and shoot elongation rates in 9 seagrass meadows across 3 atolls in the Lakshadweep Archipelago (India) representing a gradient of green turtle densities. Across all meadows, green turtles consumed an average of 60% of the total leaf growth. As expected, herbivory rates were positively related to turtle density and ranged from being almost absent in meadows with few turtles, to potentially overgrazed meadows (ca. 170% of leaf growth) where turtles were abundant. Turtle herbivory also substantially reduced shoot elongation rates. Simulated grazing through clipping experiments confirmed this trend: growth rates rapidly declined to almost half in clipped plots relative to control plots. At green turtle den- sities similar to historical estimates, herbivory not only dominated the fate of seagrass primary pro- duction but also drastically reduced production rates in grazed meadows. Intensive turtle grazing and associated movement could also modify rates of detrital cycling, leaf export and local carbon burial, with important consequences for the entire seascape.

  • Popular Article
    Jalebis at the forest fence
    The Hindu in School, 6 March
  • Popular Article
    Rasgullas worth their tin
    The Hindu in School, 13 March


  • Journal Article
    Complex ecological pathways underlie perceptions of conflict between green turtles and fishers in the Lakshadweep Islands.
    Biological Conservation 167: 25-34

    Managing human–wildlife conflict is often complicated by apparent mismatches between community perceptions and measures of directly incurred losses. Fishers in Agatti Island (Lakshadweep, India) associate recent increases in green turtle (Chelonia mydas) populations with declining fish catches, resulting in targeted killing of turtles. We compared fisher perceptions in Agatti with a very similar atoll, Kadmat, with much lower turtle densities. Nearly 90% of Agatti fishers interviewed blamed turtles for declining catch compared with 20% in Kadmat and proposed two mechanisms for this decline: direct interference (e.g., turtles damaged gear) which we define as first order conflict, and indirect mechanisms (second order conflict): turtles overgrazed seagrasses, thereby reducing fish catch. We evaluated the magnitude of gear loss with interviews and tested proposed indirect mechanisms with a turtle density gradient, before–after comparisons (taking advantage of an increase in turtles in Kadmat and concurrent decrease in Agatti) and a natural herbivore exclosure. These complementary approaches supported fisher-pro- posed second-order mechanisms: at high densities, turtles heavily grazed seagrasses, significantly reduced canopy heights, lowered fish recruit abundance, food fish biomass and catch. Estimates of losses incurred in Agatti show that first-order conflict cost fishers USD 0.6 fisher-1 year􏰄1, while second-order pathways accounted for USD 887 fisher-1 year-1. Our results show that local perceptions are fueled by often-complex mechanisms that, though not always straightforward to measure, are very important in generating conflict. Reconciling the human–wildlife interface requires an adequate accounting of direct and indirect mechanisms to more completely reflect true losses communities bear for living with wildlife.

  • Journal Article
    Long-Term occupancy trends in a data-poor dugong population in the Andaman and Nicobar Archipelago
    PLoS One. 8(10): e76181

    Prioritizing efforts for conserving rare and threatened species with limited past data and lacking population estimates is predicated on robust assessments of their occupancy rates. This is particularly challenging for elusive, long-lived and wide- ranging marine mammals. In this paper we estimate trends in long-term (over 50 years) occupancy, persistence and extinction of a vulnerable and data-poor dugong (Dugong dugon) population across multiple seagrass meadows in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago (India). For this we use hierarchical Bayesian dynamic occupancy models accounting for false negatives (detection probability,1), persistence and extinction, to two datasets: a) fragmentary long-term occurrence records from multiple sources (1959–2004, n = 40 locations), and b) systematic detection/non-detection data from current surveys (2010–2012, n = 57). Dugong occupancy across the archipelago declined by 60% (from 0.45 to 0.18) over the last 20 years and present distribution was largely restricted to sheltered bays and channels with seagrass meadows dominated by Halophila and Halodule sp. Dugongs were not found in patchy meadows with low seagrass cover. In general, seagrass habitat availability was not limiting for dugong occupancy, suggesting that anthropogenic factors such as entanglement in gillnets and direct hunting may have led to local extinction of dugongs from locations where extensive seagrass meadows still thrive. Effective management of these remnant dugong populations will require a multi-pronged approach, involving 1) protection of areas where dugongs still persist, 2) monitoring of seagrass habitats that dugongs could recolonize, 3) reducing gillnet use in areas used by dugongs, and 4) engaging with indigenous/settler communities to reduce impacts of hunting.

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