After obtaining a six-month permit from the West Bengal state forestry department, we began our conservation efforts for the critically endangered river terrapin, Batagur baska. The recent phylogenetic work by Peter Praschag and colleagues identified the Indian populations of Batagur baska to be genetically distinct from other populations in Southeast Asia. Peter’s findings made it imperative to begin more active conservation measures for the species as populations in the Indian Sunderbans are believed to number less than 20 to 30 animals, with no nesting areas currently known or protected!
However, a small group of animals remains in the Sajnekhali Interpretation Center of the Sunderban Tiger Reserve (STR). Adults (8.3) are reportedly the remaining individuals that were a part of the state forest department’s headstarting program in 1990, while a juvenile was confiscated near the village Bagna of STR in 2006. We performed a primary health assessment and found that the individuals are healthy and may breed if modifications to the existing facility are made (currently no nesting area is provided) and supplements are made to the animals’ diet. This aspect of the program is generously supported by Pat Koval through WWF Canada.
We made boat surveys along the riverside villages of the STR and costal parts of the state of West Bengal and the state of Orissa. We also interviewed fishermen and former turtle trappers along the various river habitats historical known to have B. baska. They confirmed the steep decline of this species and could not direct us to any areas that were still known to have turtle populations. Overall, no individuals or any direct evidence encountered during the surveys gives any credence to a substantial population of B. baska within the Indian Sunderbans.
Thus, we are heavily relying on the captive animals (two lone adult females) at the STR facility and at Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT) for initiating a species recovery program. We are awaiting permission from the state forest department to add the basking platforms, nesting areas, privacy fencing, and improved turtle diet to the facility at STR. We are also hoping that in the near future we will be able to arrange a breeding loan of two adult males from the STR to MCBT.
– Shailendra Singh