Rare turtles to be released in Sunderbans

Jayanta Gupta, TNN | Oct 19, 2013, 03.13 AM IST

KOLKATA: Inspired by the their success in hatching the critically endangered Northern River Terrapin or Sunderbans Batagur, officials of the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve (STR) are now planning to release the reptiles in the wild.

The Batagur, a species of river turtle, is considered functionally extinct in the wild. Only 39 of them were known to exist in captivity when conservation efforts started a couple of years ago at a few locations across the world. Among these locations were the Bhawal National Park facility near Dhaka in Bangladesh and the Sajnekhali Mangroves Interpretation Centre in the Indian Sunderbans.

Though Terrapins also exist in some South East Asian countries like Indonesia, the Sunderbans Batagur is now considered a distinct sub-species with genetic differences. With the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declaring it a critically-endangered animal, conservationists began efforts to try and trace their natural breeding grounds. So far, the conservationists have been unsuccessful. Though fishermen have come up with a specimen or two once in a while, their nests are yet to be located. Human activity is considered to be responsible for the near extinction of the species.

"We successfully hatched 38 Batagurs at Sajnekhali in 2012. This year, we hatched 56 Batagurs. This is an ongoing process. Presently, we have nine adults at Sajnekhali. Last year's hatchlings are growing quite fast and we are now planning to start releasing them in the wild. Their habitat is in the Sunderbans but we will have to locate the right spot," said Soumitra Dasgupta, field director, STR.

Forest department officials will start a survey in the Sunderbans from January to locate the spot where the turtles are to be released. According to Dasgupta, the survey may take some time after which a decision on how many of the turtles are to be released in the wild will be taken. "This is a critically endangered animal and we will have to be very careful. That is why we will have to locate the exact habitat of the Batagurs. This is going to be a unique step," he added.

Conservationists from the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), a sister organization of the IUCN, are also involved in efforts to protect the Batagurs and have provided assistance to the forest department officials. According to the TSA, the Batagurs underwent a sharp decline over the last two decades due to human consumption (both of turtles and eggs). In 2011, it ranked fourth in the list of 25 Most Endangered Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. The turtles were once commonly found at Bhitarkanika in Odisha but are now extinct from there as well. Apart from the population in the Sunderbans (both India and Bangladesh), there are two females at the Madras Crocodile Bank and about nine more at a zoo in Vienna.