By Rishika Dubla, Shailendra Singh, Chandan Jani, Pawan Parekh and Jordan Gray

The Red-crowned Roofed Turtle (Batagur kachuga) is a Critically Endangered freshwater turtle species known historically from large riverine environments of India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Evolutionarily adapted for high adult-survivorship, detrimental anthropogenic (human) activities such as illegal fishing, sand mining, poaching, egg harvesting, riverside agriculture, and large scale infrastructure projects have resulted in dramatic declines of the wild population. Recent estimates based on nest counts suggest less than 500 nesting females survive in the last remaining stronghold for the species, the Chambal River of India.

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Two hatching Red-crowned Roofed Turtles await processing by the field staff. Photo credit: Chandan Jani

To combat these declines, the TSA/Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS) India Turtle Conservation Program has been committed to conserving this species in the Chambal River for the past 12 years. Since 2006, the program has led a comprehensive, multi-pronged conservation initiative along the Chambal’s sandy banks. This conservation strategy includes habitat protection, vulnerable nest relocation and protection, hatchling release, telemetry, public awareness and school education programs, and a head start program.

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Hatchling Red-crowned Roofed Turtles simultaneously exit their nest for the waters of the Chambal. Photo credit: Chandan Jani

Each year beginning in February, the nest protection and relocation facet of the conservation strategy for the Red-crowned Roofed Turtle and Three-striped Roofed Turtle (Batagur dhongoka) is a full-time operation. During the two-month nesting season, highly trained field assistants locate and translocate nests deemed vulnerable to anthropogenic and hydrologic threats. Each clutch of eggs is carefully transferred to makeshift riverside hatcheries where artificially excavated nests are enclosed by circular bamboo fences within a protective wire enclosure. Field assistants lay guard to these hatcheries during the entire nesting, incubation, and hatching period to protect them from opportunistic jackals, feral dogs, and poachers. Providing protection in coordinated shifts, the field assistants ensure that at no point are the hatcheries unsupervised.

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Two hatchling Red-crowned Roofed Turtles sit patiently in their protective hatchery. Photo credit: Chandan Jani

Once hatching begins at the beginning of May, the hatchlings are collected, measured, catalogued, and released at the site from which they were translocated. This post-hatching operation occurs under the supervision of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh Forest Department officials. Under the mandate of the project, select individuals are randomly chosen to be head started out of the season’s total hatching success. The head start program is a bet-hedging strategy implemented in an attempt to halt further decline by increasing the total number of surviving juveniles. The goal of head starting is to rear the hatchlings in captivity until they are of a larger size-class. This effectively circumvents early-life-stage predation that they would be subject to in the wild.

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Field research technician Pawan Parekh holds hatchlings at the Garhaita Turtle Conservation Centre. Photo credit: Shailendra Singh

With most of this year’s nests having now hatched, the TSA-India team has selected and translocated a cohort of 100 hatchlings to specially built turtle-rearing ponds at the Garhaita Turtle Conservation Centre, near Etawah along the lower Chambal. There, a team of trained staff members rear the cohort under a regimented protocol and standardized diet to ensure that all husbandry and nutritional needs are met. These 100 hatchlings will be cared for under the team’s supervision for 6 months before being released at the site of their nest’s original location. Concurrently, these head started animals will help us to investigate the ecology of hatchlings in the river system. It is TSA-India’s hopes that these profound efforts will significantly boost the Chambal River’s wild population of Red-crowned Roofed Turtles through elevated survivability.

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Red-crowned Roofed Turtle hatchlings starting to display distinctive head markings. Photo credit: Shailendra Singh

Over its 12-year duration, this project has relocated, hatched, and released over 100,000 Red-crowned and Three-striped Roofed Turtles—yet the work is still far from complete. Activities such as clandestine sand collection and the erratic release of water from upstream dams not only threaten vital nesting habitat, but also affect the operating efficiency of any conservation undertakings in the area. Therefore, this joint conservation effort along the Chambal River must not only play a crucial role in proliferating the wild population of turtles, but also in spreading public conservation awareness. It is with great hopes that this public awareness will both promote a greater understanding of the Chambal’s ecosystem and its inhabitants and encourage community support for their conservation in the future.

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A hatchling Red-crowned Roofed Turtle sits on a sandbar beside the Chambal River—their last stronghold. Photo credit: Chandan Jani

We sincerely thank the TSA, the Wildlife Conservation Society – India including Mrs. Prakirti Srivastava, the Centre for Wildlife Studies, the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, Wildlife Trust of India, the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department including Officers Mr. SK Upadhyay, Mr. Pawan Kumar, Mr. Anand Kumar, Mr. SN Shukla, Mr. Girjesh Tewri, Mr. Amit Singh, the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department including Officers Mr. Shahbaz Ahmad, Mr. Alok Kumar, Mr. HS Mohanta, AA Ansari, and our long time partner and supporter, Madhya Pradesh State Biodiversity Board and its officers, especially Mr. R Sreenivasa Murthy, IFS and Ms. Elizabeth Thomas for their continued support and guidance of the Chambal Endangered Turtle Conservation Project.