Who: Shahriah Caesar Rahman
What: CEO, Creative Conservation Alliance
Where: Dhaka, Bangladesh
Jordan Gray: What is your earliest childhood memory with a turtle or tortoise?
Caesar Rahman: For as long as I can remember, I have had an immense fascination of nature and wildlife. However, growing up in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh (one of the densest cities in the world), I did not have many opportunities to get close to wildlife, including turtles. Zoos in Bangladesh do not uphold the most rigid standards, leaving many in poor condition. Therefore, I had never visited zoos during my childhood and my pet dogs, goats, and chickens were the closest I could get to nature. Growing up as a kid in a traditional Bangladeshi middle-class family, I was expected to become a doctor, engineer, or computer scientist. None of those professions appealed to me, so I was unsure about the prospects for my adult profession. Deep inside, I kept my fascination of wildlife and nature alive.
Things started to change when I moved to New York City in 2004: as a high school student, I volunteered in different organizations. During my junior year of high school, I worked with Dr. Russell Burke of Hofstra University, volunteering in his urban Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) research project in Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge. During this time, I became heavily involved with various turtle projects in the tri-state area. This is when I really fell in love with turtles and tortoises—thanks to Dr. Burke. He taught me about the ecology and conservation of chelonians, and inspired me to take my love of them to the next level!
JG: What is your favorite species of turtle or tortoise to work with?
CR: It is hard to pick a favorite one! However, for the last few years, I have been working with Asian Giant Tortoises (Manouria emys), both in the field and in captivity. Due to these interactions, I have fallen in love with them and can now say that they have been my favorite species to work with. They are such an iconic chelonian species of the tropical Southeast Asian forest; I love their personalities! They are intelligent and personable, often acting like dogs. I personally rescued one male from hunters in a remote corner of the Bangladesh/Myanmar border. We named him “Casanova” for obvious reasons. My team members and I bonded with Casanova very well; he was responsive toward us and followed us like a pet dog.
Of the aquatic species, I really enjoyed working with Diamondback Terrapins in New York City’s Jamaica Bay. They are such a beautiful species and it was such a pleasure to work with them and learn about their natural history in the field.
JG: Tell us about how you got involved with turtle conservation in Bangladesh?
CR: In 2011, I returned to Bangladesh from the United States. Shortly thereafter, I began the Bangladesh Python Project which included the initiation of a radio telemetry effort for Burmese Pythons (Python bivittatus) in northeastern Bangladesh. I also began exploring the remote areas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts to survey for rare reptiles and amphibians. The Chittagong Hill Tracts on the Bangladesh/Myanmar border is one of the least explored areas in the region. Every time I would go there I would record new findings of reptiles and amphibian diversity for the country. Regarding chelonians, my team and I discovered the critically endangered Arakan Forest Turtle (Heosemys depressa), Keeled Box Turtle (Cuora mohoutii), and rediscovered a wild population of Asian Giant Tortoise. I soon realized that all of these fascinating species and their habitats were under tremendous threats and could be extirpated from the area in the next few years without intervention. Deeply bothered by the habitat destruction I witnessed, and realizing that something needed to be done, I started an initiative to protect the chelonian populations and their habitat. With the help of the local indigenous communities, and my colleagues in Bangladesh and abroad, everything since has flowed organically!
JG: What is your favorite aspect of working with the indigenous tribes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts?
CR: The tribal peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts are very open and generous. One can walk into any given household, sit with the family, and be offered food and water. It is very hard to find people in our modern society with such openness.
Something else that really fascinates me about their culture is their traditional knowledge of wildlife and nature. Because sustenance hunting is a part of their culture, their knowledge base for the indigenous fauna is amazing. One can go to their village, show someone a photo of a bird or other wildlife, and you will be told everything about that species: their call, breeding behavior, what they eat, etc.—they are living libraries; it is amazing.
What I have learned from my close contact with the indigenous peoples is that, if you can gain their trust, they will listen to you. Naturally, gaining this trust takes time and effort. The relationships built with the tribal peoples have aided us immensely in finding many rare animals, such as the Arakan Forest Turtle, and Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla). Perhaps, without their help, we would have never found those species. I believe it is of great importance that we incorporate their traditional knowledge of the region’s ecology into modern-day wildlife science and conservation. Sadly however, their culture is rapidly changing, and the knowledge base they once passed down amongst generations is disappearing.
JG: What are the challenges of working in the remote Chittagong Hills?
CR: There are tremendous challenges to working in the remote Chittagong Hill Tracts! The area is remote and the terrain rugged. Every year, especially during the monsoon season, there are many fatalities in the area due to flash floods, landslides, and thunder storms. Additionally, because of the warm, wet environment of the region, contracting malaria is a huge risk.
Aside from the geographic and climatic conditions, the area is very politically complex. As a result, getting access to the region is very tricky. There are many active insurgent groups present in the area and fights often break out between these groups. The complicated part is to make everyone happy and still continue your work.
Lastly, lack of phone access in the area often makes monitoring our schools and activities of the parabiologists very challenging. The parabiologists are tribal members recruited to perform biological field work for our organization, so having regular communication with them is very important for our mission.
JG: What attracted you to become part of the Turtle Survival Alliance?
CR: When we initiated our turtle conservation initiatives in the Chittagong Hill Tracts we were struggling and realized that we needed good mentors and a support system. We didn’t know where to apply for funds, whom to talk to about technical aspects, etc. For this guidance and collaboration we decided to approach the TSA. It is the TSA’s international network, tangible achievements, and presence that attracted us most to approaching them. At the 13th Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles in Tucson, Arizona, my CCA partner and colleague, Scott Trageser, approached TSA President Rick Hudson and COO Andrew Walde about the CCA’s work in Bangladesh. That initial conversation has led to the TSA has becoming our conservation partner; they are one of the largest support systems we have.
JG: What advice would you give to an aspiring conservationist?
CR: Conservation in this part of the world is a monumental task. Many young people might perceive conservation to be a glamorous field. While there are many glamorous aspects to it, most often, it is not—actually, just the opposite. Conservation can be very dark. Before you decide that you are going to be a conservationist, first, know yourself well, and then ask yourself whether you are really passionate about conservation. The journey is not going to be an easy one. There will be tremendous challenges, and if you are not extremely passionate about conservation, chances are you will not be able to keep up.
Once you have decided upon being a conservationist, find a mentor—someone who is recognized, knowledgeable, and has the time and interest to guide you. Just the fact that you love animals is not enough; you will need to develop a pertinent set of skills to aid you with your passion. You don’t need to be good at everything: focus on 1 to 2 skill sets that interest you and will further you in your mission. Work on those skill sets to improve your abilities. Soft skills, such as communication, team work, etc., are equally as important. Conservation is a multidisciplinary field. As such, having knowledge in other subjects, such as economics, business, politics, religion, culture, and sociology will be extremely useful.