The Northern river terrapin and the race against extinction

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On the night before Holi, as the country prepared for the festival of colours, Shailendra Singh sat on a lonely motorboat along the forests of Sundarbans, waiting for a critically endangered riverine turtle to crawl out of the waters and lay eggs. The Batagur baska was suspected to be extinct in the wild, but Singh, an aquatic biologist who works with the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), and a hopeless optimist, wanted to be sure. Very sure. The Batagur baska lives in mangrove forests, but females are very picky about their nesting sites. Once a year, on a full moon mostly around Holi, they swim hundreds of kilometres to find sandy beaches along sea-facing islands, to nest. Except for these rare occasions, it is hard to spot them on land. So, under a moonlit sky, along a forest ruled by Royal Bengal tigers and saltwater crocodiles, on an exposed motorboat, Singh waited. “When you say Holi, I say Batagur!” he jokes on the phone. It was his fifth sleepless, unsuccessful night in a row.

The Batagur baska or the northern river terrapin conservation story is nothing short of cross-border drama, with a large, black-headed, white-eyed turtle at the heart of it. Until 2007, the turtle was thought to be distributed from the Bay of Bengal in India through the Malay Peninsula, to Sumatra and Cambodia. Though critically endangered, according to data released by IUCN, their numbers ranged between 500 and 2,500. Conservation programmes in Cambodia and Malaysia were working extensively to protect their dwindling populations. But in 2007, Peter Praschag, an Austrian turtle zoologist, published research findings proving that the southern and eastern populations are genetically different species. The turtle found around India and neighbouring countries, retained its title as “Batagur baska”; the other species found in Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand was christened “Batagur affinis”.

But the incredible discovery gave birth to an unexpected crisis. The Batagur baska had a limited range in mangroves of eastern India and Bangladesh, and a small part of Myanmar. With conservation efforts focused only in Malaysia and Cambodia, nobody knew how many survived elsewhere. “The moment the paper released, everything fell apart. The entire international turtle conservation community started panicking,” says Singh. Overnight, the Batagur baska jumped up the list of most endangered turtles in the world.

The Batagur baska is a large turtle with a carapace (upper shell) that grows up to 60 cm in length. The male is quickly recognised by its jet black head and neck, and a wrinkled, orange/peach-coloured body and forelimbs, that turn hot neon red during the breeding season. The female, however, has a creamish-grey coloured head and body. In India, the discovery sent the teams at TSA on desperate missions to look for any evidence of the Batagur baska across the coast of Odisha and many of the 48 islands of the Sundarbans. A parallel team of researchers set out to do the same in Bangladesh’s Sundarbans, constantly exchanging notes along the way. But the scale of these riverine landscapes is staggering. The Sundarbans alone stretches for over 10,000 sq km, across the borders of Bangladesh and India. It is a fine mesh of hundreds of interlocking tributaries, channels, creeks, and islands that is both, dangerous and impenetrable. “Fifteen years of working in the field has taught me that the fishermen are your best resources,” says Singh. The team flipped coloured cards and photographs of the Batagur baska to every fisherman they met. Singh often mixed it up with images of other species of the genus to check if they could differentiate one from the other, and if their judgement could be trusted.

On anecdotal leads, they trawled through forests, riverbanks, and fish markets where harvested turtles and their eggs have been sold as delicacies for decades. Decades of unsustainable fishing of gravid (pregnant) batagur and their eggs destroyed any possibility of a population reproducing throughout their range. Add to this, was a steady destruction of some of key habitats such as Suwarnrekha River in Odisha. Both forces drove the species to extinction. Spying in a fish market for rare turtles, when its meat, is an expensive delicacy, can be risky throughout Southeast Asia. Conservationists who interfere with business may even be beaten. Unfortunately, the team returned every single time without a fight, empty handed. “I had to keep telling them to not lose hope,” says Singh. “But on some days, I had none either.”

The team in Bangladesh, fortunately, had a few successes. They found some kept as pets in local village ponds. In Myanmar, conservationists found only two female batagurs in a temple pond. For seven years from 2013 to 2020 the TSA team in Myanmar has been trying to convince them to part with them, but in vain. But in India, the team realised that no known wild populations remained. The Batagur baska was declared ecologically extinct.

The term “ecologically extinct” describes a uniquely perilous situation where a population has fallen to such low numbers that it no longer plays a significant role in its ecosystem. And in its isolation, its future remains uncertain. Unfortunately, its brethren aren’t faring too well either. By 2040, it is estimated that about one-third of the world’s 300-odd turtle and tortoise species may face extinction. Today, being a turtle conservationist can be defeating vocation.

But Singh wasn’t ready to give up yet. He started looking at old documents stored in forest offices. In 2008, at the Canning Forest Department in the Sundarbans, he came across an arbitrary report, published by a park forest official in an obscure journal, that documented a conservation programme in the early 1990s. In the 1980s and 1990s the West Bengal forest department was collecting eggs of olive Ridley turtles along the Bay of Bengal for a breeding programme when they came across a couple they couldn’t identify. When those hatched, a few batagurs accidentally became a part of the project. The paper mentioned that the batagur eggs were incubated, but it didn’t say exactly where the hatchlings were released. Not all were released either.

That is when it struck Singh. “The Bangladesh team had found batagurs in village ponds,” he says, playing detective. “In all likelihood, the programme must have fizzled out due to some reasons. What do you do then with the leftover batagurs? You leave them in a local pond, just like they did in Bangladesh.” The lead sparked a new search for the turtle in freshwater ponds.

On a March morning in 2008, Singh stood on a dilapidated tower overlooking a rain-fed pond adjacent to the Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary office. And when expectations were at their lowest, a jet-black snout popped out of the water like a submarine’s periscope. Singh stood transfixed, and then… “I started dancing!” he says laughing. The team had trawled through the most dangerous forests, spent sleepless nights along banks, spied in fish markets, driven for kilometres following loose ends, but the batagurs were right in their backyard. For over four hours he saw, as not one, but multiple black snouts bob in and out. That very night he drove back to the West Bengal Forest Department in Kolkata to ask for permissions to “fish” the pond to confirm the number of batagurs.

In August 2008, Singh and his team found 13 Batagur baskas — three females, eight males and two juveniles. In the same year, two females were identified at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT), that were rescued from a fish market in the 1970s. The team wanted to immediately put a conservation programme in place, and two breeding programmes in two separate locations — MCBT and the Sundarbans. Two programmes helps because, “It builds diversity, and reduces any risk of a disease or any other calamity wiping out a small restricted population in one place,” says Singh. But the moment the forest department realised that there were only 15 known Batagur baskas in India, and thirteen were in the pond across their Sajnekhali office, they got a little cautious. They asked for a long-term proposal from both the Sundarban Tiger Reserve and TSA on how to move forward. The conservation team also wanted to fly one male to mate with the females at MBCT, but the officials at the Sundarbans hesitated. For a year, the plans moved at a turtle’s pace.

But in 2009, an unexpected disaster turned the tide. The Sundarbans witnessed one of the worst cyclones in history — Aila. Over two million people were displaced by the deadly storm. As Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary flooded beyond recognition, one male got away. The disappearance of the male triggered another moment of panic. In 2010, TSA finally got permission to launch its breeding programme with the Sundarban Tiger Reserve.

When the permissions came through, the batagurs resisted. The teams changed their diet so they were healthy enough to mate, and built cosy sand beds to mimic their nesting sites. They separated one active male with two females into an enclosure, to give him options. And waited. “But the male just wouldn’t do his job. He was disinterested,” says Singh, exasperated. That was until they introduced a little competition into the field. Once they added another male to the mix, the two got aggressive in an effort to charm a mate, and soon enough the winner triumphed. In 2012, just before Holi, on yet another night around the full moon, a female emerged to nest. Singh and the team from STR, now deeply attached to the batagurs, immediately transferred the females to a makeshift nesting area, where she nested about 20 eggs, and was later joined by another female. For the first time the team saw 33 hatchlings in early June. Since then, the batagurs have continued to nest and hatch successfully every year, barring a couple of years when temperatures and humidity got unprecedentedly high. Further support both to STR and TSA from various sources has followed the successes, securing the programme’s future. The programme is trotted out as an example of what an alliance between a government agency and conservation non-profit can accomplish.

On a recent trip, I stood along the pond in the Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary, watching snouts pop in and out of the water every few minutes. Almost a decade after the programme began, the pond is fenced with large hoardings around it that celebrate the successful captive breeding programme. The poster proudly announces: 350 Batagur baskas grown from only 13 individuals.

Meanwhile, the two lonely females at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust received a breeding male flown in especially from the Vienna Zoo. In 2014, they successfully bred. But for Singh, this is far from being a success. Now Singh is preparing to send a small cohort of captive bred and raised animals, embedded with satellite tags, back to the wild for survival studies. “People may say, why don’t we put resources into saving something that has a better chance of surviving than what is already on its way out. But if we have a few left and there is a habitat that it can go back to, I believe we must not give up. We must do everything we can to send it back to its rightful home,” says Singh, earnestly.

Written by Radhika Raj, RoundGlass Sustain. This story was first published in RoundGlass Sustain, a treasure trove of stories on India’s natural world.  

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Cover photo by Dhritiman Mukherjee; The Northern river terrapin is a turtle that is found both in fresh waters and brackish waters. It was once found in abundance along the Sundarbans.

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