Freshwater turtle research and conservation

The turtle group is dedicated towards conserving non-marine chelonians, crocodilians and cetaceans, and works in five field-based projects across the country in the Ganges and Brahmaputra River systems.

The extirpation of turtle populations in many regions of Asia has been driven by increased market demand for turtles as food, traditional medicine, or pets, resulting in unprecedented trade and trafficking of wild turtle populations. The turtle team have been supporting the Forest Department to effectively address the challenges by employing a suite of conservation actions including ex-situ measures, and capacity building of enforcement agencies to minimize illegal turtle trade.

Laboratory for Aquatic Biology (LAB) project at Kukrail Center, Lucknow

Aquatic Biology (LAB) project at Kukrail Center, Lucknow

The program has collaborated with the Uttar Pradesh Forest and Wildlife Department to set up conservation breeding programs for endangered turtles such as the Crowned River Turtle (Hardella thurjii), Indian Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle (Chitra indica), Indian Softshell Turtle (Nilssonia gangetica), Spotted Pond Turtle (Geoclemys hamiltonii) and the Red-crowned Roofed Turtle (Batagur kachuga) at the Kukrail Gharial Rehabilitation Centre, Lucknow.

This unit of the program supports the Special Task Force and Forest Department in dealing with the high volumes of illegal turtle trade in the state through on-site triage for rescued animals, housing them for quarantine and assisting with the release of healthy animals. 

We believe in building the capacity of enforcement agencies in order to strengthen protection. We organize training workshops to help government officials correctly identify turtle species, understand the right post-rescue husbandry procedures, and interpret the intricacies of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 in context of freshwater turtle species. 

Red-crowned Roofed Turtle Recovery Program in Chambal

Riverside hatchery of red-crowned turtle in Chambal

The Chambal River, acting as a state boundary between Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and part of the Gangetic Basin, supports a significant assemblage of aquatic fauna including freshwater turtles, migratory and residential aquatic birds, and Gangetic Dolphins. However, the river’s flagship species - the Red-crowned Roofed Turtle, which was once widespread across the Gangetic Basin, has now dwindled to a last surviving population of less than 500 nesting females in the Chambal River. There is depredation of eggs and hatchlings by Golden jackals, while adults may often succumb to accidental by-catch or via direct capture for the exotic pet market in Asia. Extensive habitat degradation due to illegal sand mining in the floodplains, and the erratic release of water from dams upstream further threatens the nesting habitats and impedes population recovery of this and other sympatric species.

The Turtle Conservation Center, located in the Garhaita village on the banks of the Chambal, focuses on a combination of in-situ and ex-situ efforts to save this species from the brink of extinction.

The project involves the set-up of makeshift hatcheries along nesting sites of the Chambal River, where staff search for vulnerable turtle nests, translocating them to a riverside hatchery. The hatchery is manned round the clock for the entire duration of nesting and incubation. Once the nests have hatched, hatchlings are released near the natal sites. This is being implemented in collaboration with the Forest Department.

Additionally, the project team engages in conducting awareness and education programs for the schools located along the river basin. These programs have been designed to help teachers introduce conservation learning into their regular school curriculum via specially tailored activities and environment-themed games for children.

River Conservation Center along the Terai Arc Landscape

Crowned river turtle (Hardella thurjii)

The River Conservation Center, supported by the Disney Conservation Fund and the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, was started in 2014 to mitigate fishing practices detrimental to local turtle populations. The center has helped communities develop various livelihood models for the local community such as pisciculture, mushroom farming, vegetable gardens and poultry as alternatives to fishing.

The Sarju-Ghaghra River system is a unique unprotected tributary system of the Gangetic Basin, its claim to fame being home to ten of the fifteen species of freshwater turtles found in Uttar Pradesh. To better understand this uncharacteristic abundance as well as the related population distribution and species assemblage, a long-term population monitoring study was started in 2014 through active sampling. A simultaneous study on the unique and barely understood reproductive ecology of the Crowned River Turtle (Hardella thurjii) is also being conducted; it is suspected that the species nests underwater — a phenomenon documented in no other Indian freshwater turtles species. This is being implemented in collaboration with the Forest Department.

Nature Discovery Center on Brahmaputra River

The Nature Discovery Center on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra River along the fringe of Kaziranga National Park has been set up as a joint venture between the Assam Tourism Development Corporation Ltd. and the Assam Forest Department. The aim of this center is to spread awareness about biodiversity of the landscape in an interactive and dynamic manner, as well as to provide scientists with a base station for their research focused on two endemic turtle species of the Northeast: the Black Softshell Turtle (Nilssonia nigricans) and the Assam Roofed Turtle (Pangshura sylhetensis).

Northern River Terrapin Recovery Project in Sunderbans

The Northern River Terrapin (Batagur baska), found in West Bengal’s Sundarban Tiger Reserve (STR), is the world’s second most endangered turtle. Reportedly, there are less than 50 adults surviving in the world. Our Sunderbans Field Project focuses on the recovery of this highly threatened species.

Northern river terrapin (Batagur baska)

We have been working in close association with the Sunderban Tiger Reserve /West Bengal Forest Department to captive breed this species. Since 2012, these individuals were successfully bred in captivity, and a conservation breeding program was established. The project aims to understand post-release survival and dispersal of the captive raised animals using satellite transmitters. A project team also works in the Bangladesh part of Sunderbans. Our aim is for both countries to work in tandem and learn from each other’s successes and limitations towards the common goal of saving the species. 

Asian Forest Tortoise Conservation Breeding Project in Nagaland

Asian Brown Tortoise (Manouria emys)

The Asian Forest Tortoise (Manouria emys), also known as the Asian Brown Tortoise, is an endangered species that has nearly been wiped out from its distribution range in Southeast Asia. We have set up a captive breeding program along with the Nagaland Forest Department within the Nagaland Zoo, Dimapur. In 2018, via artificial incubation, the project team successfully hatched neonates of the species in the first year of the project’s inception. We aim to increase hatching success by further developing artificial incubation facilities and releasing animals tagged with transmitters to monitor their survival and dispersal with the objective of informing future reintroduction programs. 

Furthermore, we aim to reintroduce the released tortoises in the Community Conserved Areas with active community monitoring.



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Photo Copyright: Arunima Singh






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