Northern River Terrapins Rewilded to Indian Sundarbans

For Immediate Release

CONTACT:     

JORDAN GRAY, Turtle Survival Alliance, +1 (912) 659-0978, jgray@turtlesurvival.org

• Ten captive-bred Northern River Terrapins released into Sundarbans National Park in East India.
• The Northern River Terrapin is regarded as one of the most endangered turtles in the world.
• Release represents first monitored rewilding of Northern River Terrapin, and first satellite tagging of any non-marine turtle, in India.
• Post-release animal movement and survival monitoring will be performed through satellite and VHF telemetry.
• Pilot release will serve as a means to guide future release potential for rewilding the Northern River Terrapin in the Indian Sundarbans.

LUCKNOW, INDIA — Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and Sundarbans Tiger Reserve (STR) of West Bengal Forest Department (WBFD) today announced the rewilding of ten captive-bred Northern River Terrapins (Batagur baska) to Sundarbans National Park in East India. This first monitored rewilding of the Critically Endangered terrapin in India comes after more than a decade of conservation breeding at designated facilities within the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. Together with previous releases by TSA’s partners in Bangladesh of Northern River Terrapins equipped with satellite transmitters, this pilot release will serve to quantify movement and survivorship and will guide a strategy for future reintroductions of the species in India.

“Turtle Survival Alliance and our regional partners are engaged in a long-term commitment to restoring a functioning population of Northern River Terrapins in India,” said Dr. Shailendra Singh, Director of Turtle Survival Alliance India. “Though there are many challenges to overcome, the release of these ten terrapins is a symbolic stepping stone toward realizing our conservation goal.”

A subadult Northern River Terrapin is ceremoniously blessed at the temple of Bonbibi, the forest goddess of the Sundarbans, prior to its release. Photo: Upmanyu Chakraborty

On January 19, staff of Turtle Survival Alliance and Sundarbans Tiger Reserve of West Bengal Forest Department released ten subadult Northern River Terrapins into a tidal river within Sundarbans National Park. The group of terrapins, aged approximately nine years and consisting of seven females and three males, represents the first monitored return of this Critically Endangered species to the wild in India. The terrapins are offspring of twelve “founder” animals discovered in 2008 in a pond at the Sajnekhali Interpretation Center within Sundarbans Tiger Reserve.

Through a joint WBFD/STR/TSA program, in 2012 the founder animals were entered into a conservation breeding initiative, with the first successful reproduction of 33 hatchlings occurring that year. The ten subadults released last week were selected from more than 370 terrapins hatched through this program. In addition to carefully managing breeding in captivity, STR and TSA worked with governmental agencies to obtain permits and engage communities within the Sundarbans in educational initiatives on the importance of the terrapins’ return to the wild there. In the presence of hundreds of local citizens, the ten terrapins were ceremoniously blessed prior to release by a priest at the temple of Bonbibi, the forest goddess of the Sundarbans. With this blessing TSA/STR’s goal is to create a cultural connection for the return of the terrapin to the mangrove forest’s ecology.

The first monitored release of Northern River Terrapins in India is a joint program of the Turtle Survival Alliance and Sundarbans Tiger Reserve of West Bengal Forest Department. Photo: Upmanyu Chakraborty

“Turtle Survival Alliance and our partners have demonstrated that we can prevent extinction of the Northern River Terrapin through captive breeding in both India and Bangladesh,” said Rick Hudson, President of Turtle Survival Alliance. “Now, our overriding challenge remains to reestablish wild populations in a heavily human-impacted ecosystem where fishing practices are intense and widespread. Success depends on our ability to encourage local riverine communities to embrace the return of this iconic turtle. We simply cannot allow this turtle to vanish from the collective memory of the Sundarbans culture.” 

The Sundarbans is an immense mosaic of tidal rivers and mangrove forests spanning 10,000 km2. Through knowledge gained from previous Northern River Terrapin releases by TSA’s partners Zoo Vienna Schönbrunn and Bangladesh Forest Department in Bangladesh, we expect the ten headstarted terrapins to make considerable movements through this ecosystem. TSA India staff will monitor post-release animal movement and survival via satellite transmitters, aided with a Very High Frequency (VHF) component, affixed to the top shell of each turtle, as well as through specially licensed fishermen who will report the location and condition of each turtle if captured incidentally.

Integrating local fishermen and riverside communities is a fundamental component of TSA’s approach for other at-risk species in India, while the use of satellite transmitters to provide daily data on the turtles’ movements is a first-ever tracking method for a non-marine turtle in the country. Data acquired from this effort will guide conservation and repatriation measures for future rewilding efforts.

Satellite transmitters, aided with a VHF component, affixed to the terrapins’ shells will allow TSA biologists the opportunity to track the movements of the animals through the Sundarbans’ vast expanse of tidal mangrove forests following release. Photo: Upmanyu Chakraborty

The Northern River Terrapin is widely regarded as one of the most endangered freshwater turtles in the world. Once considered abundant as recently as the early 1900s, the Northern River Terrapin is now considered Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). TSA and its partners estimate that fewer than 20 adult terrapins may survive in the wild across the vast expanse of the Sundarbans spanning southeast India and southwest Bangladesh. As human settlement of the Sundarbans dramatically increased, the wild Northern River Terrapin population precipitously declined due to unsustainable collection of adults and eggs for food. With so few wild adults, the species now teeters on the brink of extinction in the wild.

The Northern River Terrapin conservation breeding program and rewilding effort in the Sundarbans is part of a larger bi-national strategy by TSA and its partners to create large assurance colonies within the turtle’s native range and, ultimately, restore wild populations there.

TSA would like to acknowledge the support of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Government of India, and West Bengal Forest Department, and Ocean Park Conservation Foundation – Hong Kong, People’s Trust for Endangered Species, and Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Gardens for funding and technical support. We thank Dr. Debal Ray (PCCF, Wildlife), Mr. Soumitra Dasgupta (PCCF), Mr. Piar Chand (Director, SBR), Mr. Tapas Das (Field Director, STR), Mr. Justin Jones (Deputy Field Director, STR), and TSA India Program (release and monitoring) team members Dr. Shailendra Singh, Ms. Sreeparna Dutta, Mr. Pawan Pareek, Ms. Rishika Dubla, and Mr. Upmanyu Chakraborty.

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About Turtle Survival Alliance

With a vision of zero turtle extinctions in the 21st century and a mission to transform passion for turtles into effective conservation action, the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) was formed in 2001 in response to rampant and unsustainable collection of Asian turtles supplying Chinese markets. Since its inception the TSA, a with 501(c)(3) nonprofit, has become recognized as a global force for turtle conservation, capable of taking swift and decisive action on behalf of critically endangered turtles and tortoises. TSA employs a three-pronged approach to turtle conservation: 1) restoring populations in the wild where possible; 2) securing species in captivity through assurance colonies; and 3) building capacity to restore, secure and conserve species within their range countries. In addition to the Turtle Survival Center in South Carolina, TSA manages collaborative turtle conservation programs in 15 diversity hotspots around the world. For more information, visit: www.turtlesurvival.org; http://www.facebook.com/turtlesurvival; www.instagram.com/turtlesurvival; @turtlesurvival on Twitter.

4 Comments

  1. Abhisek Gain on January 26, 2022 at 3:39 am

    Remarkable endeavour.

  2. Christine on January 26, 2022 at 9:19 am

    This is beautiful

  3. Vel Muskat on February 9, 2022 at 3:48 pm

    Thank you for sharing, a beautiful site to see them going back into the wild.
    Great Job!

  4. Karen DeBraal on May 23, 2022 at 8:22 pm

    Thank you for this incredible work. I love the melding of the technical with the blessing of a priest of the Forest goddess.

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