Every turtle matters!
Biologist Dr Shailendra Singh was recently awarded with the prestigious Behler Turtle Conservation Award for the conservation of three critically endangered species of turtles.
India comes third in the world as far as turtle diversity is concerned. However, the turtles, known to have one of the longest lifespans in the animal kingdom, have been losing their lives, largely due to illegal trading and habitat loss. While several of the turtle species in India are endangered, efforts to protect and conserve them are also underway. Dr Shailendra Singh (SS), biologist and Director of Turtle Survival Alliance’s India Programme, was recently awarded with the prestigious Behler Turtle Conservation Award for bringing three critically endangered species of turtles back from the brink of extinction. However, Singh, who is constantly travelling from state to state, habitat to habitat for turtle conservation says that his work goes beyond the species that are endangered. He hopes that the commonest of the common turtles in India are safe. Here are the excerpts from his conversation with Indie Journal’s Prajakta Joshi.
Reports have time and again revealed the necessity of turtle conservation amid the constant threat of poaching and habitat loss. Could you please tell us about your work with the critically endangered turtle species in India, especially the three that your work has saved?
SS: We have 29 species of turtles in the country and India stands no. 3 in terms of turtle diversity. And we are a very strategic country when it comes to turtle diversity and conservation. Unfortunately, 17 of the species are endangered or critically endangered. The majority of them are threatened due to their illegal harvesting from their wild habitats. It’s not just poaching, but large scale river pollution and other issues with the habitats, due to which they are facing a risk of immediate extinction.
When I started, my first work was surveying UP’s turtles and understanding key turtle habitats and populations, and how best the government and NGOs can help them. Later I moved to the Chambal region, for an endangered species called ‘Red Crowned Roof Turtle’ (genus: Batagur Kachuga). Then I realised that most of the species in the genus Batagur were endangered. Then I expanded my work to another species ‘Batagur Baska’, another turtle species which is in Odisha and West Bengal. I started working in the Sundarban area in 2008. I also work with another species, which is found in certain temples in Assam and Northeastern area, ‘Black Softshell Turtles’. So these were three major species that I concentrated on, which in turn benefited other seven species of turtles in three different regions.
Could you tell us more about what is threatening different turtle species in different areas of the country?
SS: When you talk about the turtles in North India, illegal poaching and habitat loss are the major drivers of turtle extinction. The Red Crowned Roof Turtle was earlier found in the upper Ganga and all the tributaries in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand, etc. But currently, there is only one surviving population of this species based on our surveys, which is on Chambal river. We fear that we have less than 500 surviving adults. That is a really threatening situation where you have all your eggs in one basket. So we need to definitely revive this population and create some satellite populations as well. Other primary habitats of the species were Yamuna and Ganga. But most of these habitats are already gone, even in terms of aquatic diversity. Right now, Chambal is the only hope, and we are also trying to find alternate habitats so that we could release some of the animals there.
When it comes to Sundarbans and the coastal area of East India, we see a very beautiful species called ‘Northern River Terrapin’ (genus: Batagur Baska). This species too was almost entirely gone due to Illegal hunting and habitat loss. When I started, there were only 13 individuals. In my surveys in Odisha and West Bengal, I did not find any. Luckily, there were some individuals with the research station of Sundarban Tiger Reserve. So we collaborated. Over the years, fortunately, we bred this species in captivity. Now we have over 300-400 individuals which can return to the wild soon. But the only habitat left is the Sundarbans. Earlier, there was a habitat called Subarnarekha river in Odisha and West Bengal. But that river is completely gone.
What I am emphasising here is that you do need conservation breeding, you can breed hatchlings in captivity. But if the habitat is gone, the opportunity to revive the species in a particular region is very limited.
The third species is ‘Black Softshell Turtles’. Until 2008, it was believed that these turtles were already gone from the wild. They were categorised as extinct in the IUCN red list. As part of our surveys, we listed certain temples in the Northeast which still had a good surviving population of this species. We started talking to stakeholders, local organisations, local government officers, temple authorities, etc., that if we can protect some of them, raise the babies and bring them to certain historic habitats and do the supplementation programme. After lots of persistent efforts, since last two years, we have started releasing some animals in certain protected landscapes.
My work also focuses on conservation programmes for other threatened species, and I am also very concerned about the rehabilitation of confiscated turtles. In the last 10 years, I was involved in the rehabilitation of about 35,000 turtles representing around 11 species in different parts of the country. These are the turtles that the enforcement agencies catch.
We constantly hear news about smuggling rackets of turtles being uncovered and turtles rehabilitated. Which are the turtle species that fall prey to poaching the most and what are they smuggled for?
SS: Turtles are poached for three main reasons. One is food. It could be by the communities, so within the country. The other is for high-end restaurants outside the country. These are illegally traded and smuggled outside the country. The second thing is traditional Chinese medicine. People believe that turtles and their products have some kind of aphrodisiac value and other traditional medicine values. Some turtle parts are also in demand in South East Asian countries for this reason. The third thing has emerged in the last 10 years or a little before that. Turtles are harmless, they are cute. So lots of people want to keep them in captivity in their homes as pets. Some rare species are also in demand for this reason outside the country.
What is being done to stop smuggling?
SS: Certain agencies like the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau of India, which is a hand of the Government of India, has been doing a very good job. There have been many confiscations in the past eight to 10 years. We also have the state forest department, state police. Like in Uttar Pradesh, we have a special task force. Ground-level agencies are doing very good work. Several organisations are involved in training. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau started ‘Operation Kurma’ in 2017, under which over 25,000 turtles were rescued from different parts of the country.
Confiscations are a continuous process. But the biggest problem is how to rehabilitate those animals considering all the international protocols. Why do you need to save wildlife? To maintain the functions of the particular environments that they are living in. So we need to think about how to stop illegal harvesting in the first place. We definitely need to focus more on ensuring that no turtles are poached in the first place. We need to do capacity-building of the staff that is patrolling habitats. We need to better equip our enforcement agencies to detect certain turtle products like turtle shells and turtle shell powders. We also need to identify repeated offenders, put forth a better case and make sure that they are convicted. We need to set some examples.
How important is community participation in the turtle conservation programme?
SS: For recovering or conserving any wild species in the human-dominated landscape, such as northern India, we definitely need to involve them in your work. They need to be your eyes and ears. Not only do they need to be informed about the importance of the species and their legal status, but they also should be used in conservation. Whenever we do surveys, we target certain communities that are interacting with the habitats. We try to educate them, especially the kids. This is a very regimental programme, we call it a ‘cluster level education programme’ where we target certain teachers and kids.
We also identify communities that are involved in activities like fishing and educate them on how they can use better nets that do not contribute to turtle drowning and accidental deaths. We also incentivise families that are entirely dependent on turtle trade. For instance in Brahmaputra, where we are standing right now, we are working with three communities. We are trying to do value addition to local craft. And part of the deal is that the families and their heads will not catch turtles or do any activities that might harm turtles.
Turtle festival is held in the village of Velas every year where visitors can watch baby Olive Ridley turtles walk to the sea. Do you think activities like these can help create awareness and conserve the species or just end up being another threat to them?
SS: I would say that any tourism, if it is responsible ecotourism, it’s going to be good and helpful. But if it is not controlled under the watchful eyes of enforcement agencies, then it might create a problem. If it is responsible, a certain number of people can definitely be allowed. They can see turtle hatchlings and nests from a certain distance. Festivals are good, only if you can manage people and they don’t disturb turtles and behave responsibly.
Every year, we see an increased number of water bodies, may it be lakes, rivers or seas, being encroached upon for the reasons of development. How much has it hampered different species of turtles and their breeding patterns?
SS: Around 30 percent loss of wetlands and water sources has already been recorded in India. That is not good. Smaller ponds and wetlands are already dying, at a very fast pace. Secondly, any change in the regime of water flow (e.g. due to dam construction) is definitely going to affect the turtle population. And not only turtles, it will also affect gharials, dolphins, fish, river bird population, etc. So we need to tie up with river agencies, share the information. We could arrange the maintenance of certain levels of water, avoiding erratic flow. Reptiles are very sensitive to the humidity maintained in the incubation chambers. So any change in that, any water change, could affect. Also after hatching, the turtle hatchlings need to return to the water. If that distance is more, the hatchlings would probably not make it. So certain sensitive and fragile things need to be shared with the water resource agencies. And they need to be biodiversity sensitive.
So what next for India’s turtles? What more needs to be done and is already on TSA’s roadmap? Is the Indian government doing enough on this front?
SS: My message to all policy-making organisations is that please give enough attention to the turtle population. We are a turtle diverse country. But turtles need to be brought to the mainstream. They are the most threatened vertebrate groups, even more than birds and mammals. So they need a little more focus. They need to be identified for the management of certain wetlands and river habitats. Using turtles as umbrella species will give the focus required for their conservation. Also, certain plants need to be retained to restore the habitats of the turtles, not just conserve them in captivity. Rivers need to be revived. There are certain species that have a very restricted range, like three species in South India. These are surviving, but they also need our attention. I don’t want to classify my work for threatened species only, but also those that are already there. We need to build a mechanism to protect them as well. It will be hard if they are gone. We need to keep the commonest species common. For that, we all need to start together and keep turtles in focus.