By Dr. Shailendra Singh, Jordan Gray, Arunima Singh, and Rishika Dubla

Turtle trade is a serious problem in the northern states of India, and at crisis-level in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The TSA-India program has been working relentlessly with local law enforcement, the Forestry and Wildlife Department, and a Special Task Force to curb these activities; a task proving to be of herculean proportions.

Recently, the collaborative team was rewarded for their challenging work when on 8 March 2017, as part of “Operation Kurma”, wildlife-traffickers were caught in the city of Lucknow attempting to transport Tricarinate Hill Turtles (Melanochelys tricarinata) across state borders. The Tricarinate Hill Turtle is protected by the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) as a Schedule I Species (Endangered). The apprehended traffickers acted as middle men, exporting the turtles, packaged in brutal and inhumane conditions, to other states within India. The trafficking network would most likely have resulted in some of these turtles being exported out of the country to foreign markets as well.

Tricarinata face

An adult female poses for the camera.

The break in the case began when the TSA-India team from the Kukrail Turtle and Gharial Centre (KGTRC) in Lucknow, received a phone call from the Special Task Force regarding the arrest and confiscation, and immediately rushed to the site. The responders found 54 Tricarinate Hill Turtles, bound in small bundles within muslin bags, and stuffed into two backpacks. The team quickly set about releasing the animals from their bondage and administering first aid. The turtles were also soaked in water to combat dehydration. Each specimen was then identified, sorted, checked for any abnormalities or signs of ill health, and safely transported to the rehabilitation center at the KGTRC.

Tricarinata group

The group dines on fish and vegetables at the KGTRC.

The turtles were maintained at the KGTRC’s quarantine facility for five months, where they could be closely monitored, with the intentions of ensuring all the specimens were healthy before being released back into their natural habitat. Despite the stress incurred by the turtles, due to their having been poached and smuggled in the audacious manner, the TSA-India team received some surprising, yet exciting news on 9 July 2017. During a routine check, a keeper at the KGTRC discovered 4 new hatchlings in the Tricarinate Hill Turtle enclosure! These hatchlings received husbandry with the adult group until all were cleared for release.

Tricarinata hatchling

A surprise hatchling; a product of a confiscated female.

In preparation for release, TSA-India, in collaboration with the Awadh Forest Division and Uttar Pradesh Forest Department’s Endangered Species Project, identified an undisclosed release location within the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, a large, protected Terai-Duar savanna and grasslands ecosystem near the Indo-Nepalese border. Although the precise origins of the turtles were unknown, the Special Task Force believed the animals originated from this general region of Northern India.

Tricarinata release

Caretakers release the turtles in the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve.

On the morning of 3 August 2017, after five months of care, a final veterinary inspection, and permanently marking the turtles, the confiscated group of adults and new hatchlings were transported over five hours from Lucknow to the Pilihbit Tiger Reserve for their release. Due to the density of wild Bengal Tigers and Indian Leopards in the reserve, the TSA-India team believes this “natural threat” will help deter turtle poachers from illegal activities in the release location. During the release, Suresh Pal Singh of the Endangered Species Project even sighted a tigress and her cubs near the release location while others were focused on the activities of the turtles!

Pilibhit tigers

A Bengal tigress and her cubs utilize a road at the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve.

Hopefully the due diligence of our teams and their collaborators in India and Bangladesh, who are dedicated to the preservation and protection of the native fauna of the subcontinent, will help ensure a future for these beautiful turtles. Responding to confiscations of trafficked turtles and the subsequent care given prior to reintroduction to the wild, places an additional financial burden on field conservation programs. The TSA needs your help to ensure we are able to respond to the next confiscation and provide the care necessary to ensure these trafficked turtles survive and thrive. Please DONATE TODAY so that we can be ready for tomorrow!

Special Thanks:

This program was conducted under the guidance of Mr. S.K Upadhyay (Principal Chief Conservator of Forests), Mr. K.K Pandey (Conservator of Forests, Endangered Species Project), Mr. Manoj Sonkar (Divisional Forest Officer, Awadh), Mr. S.N Shukla (Wildlife Warden), along with Dr. Shailendra Singh (Country Director, TSA-India).  

All animals were transported and safely released in the reserve in the presence of Mr. Kailash Yadav (Divisional Forest Officer, Pilibhit Tiger Reserve), Mr. Suresh Pal Singh and Mr. M.P. Yadav from the Endangered Species Project, and Mr. Bhasker Dixit and Ms. Arunima Singh from TSA-India.

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