Orissa, on the east coast of India, is one of the three mass nesting sites in the world for olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea). This population is currently under threat as a result of fishery-related mortality; more than 100 000 olive ridleys have been counted dead in the last 10 years in Orissa. In general, the globally distributed olive ridley turtle has received significantly less conservation attention than its congener, the Kemp's ridley turtle (L. kempi), because the latter is recognized as a distinct species consisting of a single endangered population. Our study of mitochondrial DNA haplotypes suggests that the ridley population on the east coast of India is panmictic, but distinct from all other populations including Sri Lanka. About 96% of the Indian population consisted of a distinct ‘K’ clade with haplotypes not found in any other population. Nested clade analysis and conventional analysis both supported range expansions and/or long-distance colonization from the Indian Ocean clades to other oceanic basins, which suggested that these are the ancestral source for contemporary global populations of olive ridley turtles. These data support the distinctiveness of the Indian Ocean ridleys, suggesting that conservation prioritization should be based on appropriate data and not solely on species designations.