New Chitra Conservation Program Off to an Impressive Start

In the fall of 2008, we initiated a status assessment and experimental hatch-and-release program for the endangered Indian Narrow Headed Softshell turtle (Chitra indica).  This is an extensively hunted species in north India, mostly for its outer cartilaginous rim or “calipee.”  Although its dried calipee is considered to be sub-standard in comparison to the other sympatric softshell turtle species due to a relative high fat content, it is still unsustainably exported for traditional Chinese medicine and as a luxury food (the base for a gelatinous soup). 

This species is now only found in limited numbers outside protected wetlands and rivers of north India due to the above mentioned hunting as well as unprecedented changes in the riverine habitats (e.g., river linkages, impoundments, and high levels of water pollution).  Over a hundred wetlands in twenty districts in the state of Uttar Pradesh were surveyed from 2005-2008.  We found that C. indica currently occurs in less than 10% of these habitats compared to 30% two decades before.

We have been collecting data regarding the exploitation of C. indica from different parts of the state since 2005, yet it wasn’t until this year that we were able to start a species-specific conservation research and action thanks in part to a grant from the Cleveland Metroparks Zoos.

Due to a paucity of scientific literature on the species, we engaged several former turtle poachers that we had been previously networked with to rapidly gain local knowledge of the species.  The former poachers proved to very valuable in locating the few remaining breeding populations C. indica in remote rivers.  

We selected a C. indica nesting area near the town of Farrhukabad along the Ganges River to begin our nest protection and hatch-and-release program. We fenced a 15 m area along a steep bank where nests were discovered with nylon mesh fishing net to create our hatchery.  The hatchery provided protection from predators like monitor lizards (Varanus bengalensis) and jackals (Canis aureus) as well as poaching for human consumption.  We surveyed areas close to Ramganga-Ganges River confluence from mid-July to mid-October, and between mid-July and mid-August, we collected seven nests (961 eggs) and relocated them to the hatchery.  All nests were equipped with temperature data loggers.

In early October 2008, 732 hatchlings emerged; most were immediately released after we recorded standard morphological measurements and injected Decimal Coded Wire (DCW) tags under the skin of the hind limbs for long-term monitoring.  We transferred a group of 40 to a village pond in Terai (Foothills of Himalaya) and ten to our turtle head-starting facility in the village of Garhaita along the Chambal River for head-starting.  We purchased an additional three nests (over 350 eggs), from local turtle poachers, and relocated them to our hatchery, yet these failed to hatch.  This was probably due to mishandling of the eggs during early embryonic development as these eggs were reportedly removed from this field site prior to the establishment of our hatchery. 

We also purchased two nests (252 eggs) from fishermen on the Yamuna River (30 km up Yamuna-Chambal River confluence) and relocated them to the sandbank near Gharita for in-situ incubation.  This sandbank was chosen as earlier in the nesting season we had located a nest (192 eggs) at this site.  Sadly, all three of these nests were depredated.  This again emphasizes the need for around the clock guarded hatcheries, which we provide during the Batagur kachuga and Batagur dhongoka nesting season.  Notably, we believe the nest with 192 eggs is the largest clutch size ever recorded for C. indica. 

In the spring of 2009, we helped renovate a defunct softshell turtle facility at Kukrail (a state-run crocodile headstarting facility near the city of Lucknow) for headstarting C. indica hatchlings for at least a year before shifting them to community ponds. This headstarting facility will allow us to retain over 500 hatchlings per year.  It is our hopes that the soft-release into the community ponds will better prepare the turtles for transition into their natural habitats.  Notable is that this defunct facility was used in the historic release of tens of thousands of Ganges softshell turtles (Nilssonia gangeticus) to abate the number of human corpses in the Ganges River in the early 1980s.

– Shailendra Singh and Brian Horne