by Jordan Gray
Who: Dr. Shailendra Singh
What: Director, TSA-India Program
Where: Lucknow, India
Jordan Gray: What is your earliest childhood memory with a turtle or tortoise?
Shailendra Singh: At nine years of age, I acquired and kept two Indian Tent Turtles (Pangshura tentoria), “Tom and Tinky”, as pets. At the time, I was living in a village called Jarwal Road near Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary along the Indo-Nepal border. My early observations of these pets fueled my interest to observe and conserve turtles in their natural environment. Whenever I found any distressed turtles in the village, I used to walk and release them in a proper wetland around the village. At times, these early “field studies” incurred my mother’s wrath, especially when I cut up her new mosquito net to fish for turtles in a village pond!
JG: What is your favorite species of turtle or tortoise to work with?
SS: I like all large river turtles, and Batagur is my favorite genus of them. Males in nuptial colors are unmatched! I believe Batagur needs a lot of our support to survive well into future. Of the genus, the Painted Terrapin (Batagur borneoensis), is my favorite turtle. Besides Batagur I love Mata Mata and Side-necked Turtles, although I have never had a chance to work with them in the wild. They are pretty cool turtles and fantastic examples of a complex evolutionary process!
JG: How did you first become involved in turtle and tortoise research and conservation?
SS: As part of my master’s degree, I opted to study turtles. I got in touch with the late Mr. Dhurvjyoti Basu, an Indian herpetologist who in turn put me in touch with the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust/Centre for Herpetology; a premiere reptile zoo of India. In 2003, with modest support from the bank, I studied population structure and growth of Batagurid turtles on the Gomti River which flows through the North-central part of the state of Uttar Pradesh. During my study I found the local extinction of Three-striped Roofed Turtle (Batagur dhongoka), as well as rampant poaching of some of the other riverine species. These findings really concerned me and further fueled my interest to set up a country-wide program to study and conserve turtles, while simultaneously empowering more interested groups and students. Later in 2004, I joined the TSA as a research assistant to survey North-Indian rivers and wetlands.
JG: What is the most amusing situation you have found yourself in, in the field?
SS: Early in my career during a field sampling trip at dusk, my assistant and I were deploying hoop-traps to sample for turtles in a marshy area in the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve along the India-Nepal border. We had walked about 50 meters into the wetland, were half-immersed in viscous mud and were trying to reach the interior puddles, when suddenly we heard a growl from an approaching tiger! Monkeys and deer gave alarm calls from the surrounding forest and then a big branch broke; possibly due to the stressed monkeys. Another assistant who was standing at the edge of the swampy area, and who was given the responsibility of shining the flash-light while we were setting up the trap, ran away as soon as he heard the tiger growl. This left us in the dark, completely frozen, and alone. I whispered to my assistant to keep quiet and motionless, as he was trying unsuccessfully to attempt to get out of the mud possibly to also “run” back. Later we found out that one of our senior colleagues was the culprit, having mocked a growling tiger to test our nerves in the chilly darkness! The field assistant who ran away resigned the next morning.
Another incidence occurred when Shashwat Sirsi and I constructed a soft-release pen on the Chambal River to release our telemetered head-started Red-crowned Roofed Turtles (Batagur kachuga). The area within the soft-release enclosure was quite nice with lots of big and small rocky pools. It was a hot, sunny, April day, with the mercury soaring over 45 degree centigrade (113°F), so I decided to jump into one of the biggest pools to cool myself down. I spent a couple of hours splashing in that enclosed pool of about 6 feet deep. While playing with his fish-finder, Shashwat found what he thought to be a “big fish” right there in the same pool. This “big fish” instead turned out to be an 11-ft mugger crocodile! We had to scoot that guy (croc) out before releasing our turtles into the enclosure.
JG: If you were not a chelonian conservationist, what would you want to be?
SS: I would have been a crocodile biologist. Rivers, wetlands, and reptiles they harbor have always fascinated me. I still do some small projects on gharial, a long-snouted fish-eating crocodile and the Ganges River dolphin in my personal time away from turtle conservation and research, and to try and understand the ecological issues they face. If not a field biologist at all, I would have been an Army officer, as I was selected to serve on the Border Security Force (Indian Border Patrol), of which I turned down to become a field conservationist in 2005.
JG: What advice would you give to an aspiring chelonian conservationist?
SS: We and chelonians need more and more talented die-hard conservationists. Train yourself with a good organization and join the force to save the one of the world’s most threatened vertebrate groups. Your conservation efforts may show delayed results as chelonians are facing a plethora of challenges, but don’t give up, be optimistic. Please encourage participatory conservation if you are working to save these enigmatic creatures in human-dominated landscapes such as India. Finally, please understand that you opted to work for a non-profit organization and in a team, so be a strength for your team and give them time to get where we all want to be: a place with lots of happy turtles swimming in clean water!
JG: What attracted you to become part of the Turtle Survival Alliance?
SS: TSA is a family rather than an organization. The entire team and network members are very supportive of each other’s work and share the same vision of turtle conservation. Anytime you try and get in touch with any TSA member, you get the help you need within 24 hours! I call my bosses at odd hours and during the weekend and they happily listen so that we can work together to tackle the issue if there is one. TSA is the right blend of outreach and research, zoo and field, and academic and practical aspects required for chelonian conservation. Moreover, I really love the mutual trust at all levels. I have joined the TSA since Day 1 of my professional career and hopefully will keep working with the organization throughout my journey of helping to save India’s turtles!