Policies and People | How a young conservationist saves river turtles

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Unesco Program on Man and the Biosphere (MAB). Established in 1971 as an intergovernmental science program, MAB pioneered the idea of ​​biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.

MAB’s 50th anniversary gave me the perfect opportunity to meet Arunima Singh, a 31-year-old environmentalist, recipient of the 2021 NatWest Earth Heroes Save the Species Award.

Rooting for inconspicuous species

Arunima won the prestigious award not only for his exceptional efforts to save turtles, turtles, crocodilians and dolphins of the Ganges, but also for devoting much of his time to a crucial activity: raising awareness among riparian communities and the general public to these freshwater species.

“The price is very competitive. But the independent jury chose her because she went beyond the call of duty to inspire and involve rural and urban communities in the conservation of these species, ”said N Sunil Kumar, head of the bank. sustainability in India and head of the NatWest India Foundation, NatWest Group.

“The award is not just for me, but also for lesser-known species such as turtles,” says Arunima, who works with Lucknow-based Turtle Survival Alliance-India (TSA). “Turtles aren’t really charismatic species… so people don’t bother saving them.”

Arunima and the TSA team have rescued, rehabilitated and released more than 28,000 turtles, 25 Ganges dolphins, six marsh crocodiles and four gharials over the past eight years.

India is one of the world’s hotspots for turtle diversity. There are a total of 29 species of freshwater turtles (24) and turtles (5). Freshwater turtles keep rivers, ponds, and freshwater sources clean by eating algal blooms and feeding on dead material, and are therefore also known as “ecosystem vultures.” aquatic “. But these species are under tremendous pressure from habitat fragmentation, pollution, poaching and accidental drowning through fishing nets and threats to their nesting habitats.

Many of these 29 species are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act; some have Schedule 1 protection, the same as a tiger. But some turtle species are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s endangered species list, but are not protected by Indian wildlife laws. [for example, three-striped roofed turtle and crowned river turtle]. This policy must change because, without legal cover, it is difficult to save them from poachers, ”explains Arunima.

She also helped with remarkable rescues, repatriation and rehabilitation of animal species in distress.

Out of sight out of mind

Over the years, the lack of state and public concern about freshwater turtles has led to their smuggling primarily for three reasons: food, medicinal purposes, and the pet trade.

For example, in October, the Hindustan Times reported that 266 turtles had been rescued from Hyderabad through the joint efforts of the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department and the TSA. The arrested poachers confessed to poaching these turtles in the Gomti River near Lucknow. TSA-India director Dr Shailendra Singh told HT that these turtle species were poached to meet demand from the illegal pet trade because they were beautiful and people kept them in aquariums.

“It’s really hard to keep track of poachers. They move from place to place, and sometimes they have better information on where to find these turtles than an environmentalist, ”Arunima told me on a Zoom call. “These poachers are just the tip of the iceberg… the larger network behind them has helped them survive and avoid detection.

The Gomti connection

Arunima’s interest in freshwater habitat is deeply linked to the Gomti River, which flows through Uttar Pradesh. As a child, she walked along the river to her family village to meet her grandparents. “During these visits, I developed a strong relationship with freshwater habitats. The experience left a deep impact on my mind.

But it was a visit to the Kukrail Gharial Rehabilitation Center in Lucknow during his Masters in Life Sciences in 2010 that turned out to be a turning point.

“My mentor, Shailendra Singh, told me about wildlife conservation and in 2013 I started volunteering with TSA. After I finished my masters, I got involved full time in ASD, ”she said. Currently, she is pursuing a PhD focusing on freshwater turtles.

At TSA, Arunima is involved in the turtle breeding program, which means the transfer of turtle eggs from vulnerable nests along rivers; incubated safely and naturally in a sand hatchery. Once the juveniles reach around 1000g, they are released into the waterways to help the wild population to multiply further. Such studies are essential for the future conservation of the species and develop a protocol for the survival of the species.

In addition, she is working on the nesting ecology of certain species, which involves studying rivers with fishermen, collecting information from them and placing radio transmitters on the species to obtain information on their. movements and their nesting patterns.

“The fieldwork depends on the design of the study. If I put on radio transmitters, I have to be near the river all the time during the nesting period, ”explains Arunima. It is not the result of a day, but very essential for the long term conservation program.

Awareness: catch them young

“It is very important to reestablish the bond between children and animals. Unless we make that connection, it will be very difficult to save our wildlife. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to make this connection at a young age, ”recalls Arunima. “When school children visit the TSA Interpretive Center, I make sure they have the opportunity to interact with the turtles… It helps them develop not only an understanding of the natural world, but also a sense of membership ”.

Another important aspect of its outreach efforts is its work with riparian communities, frontline forestry staff and veterinarians. Working with riparian communities is to educate people about turtles and wean them from the illegal trade endemic in the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh.

“It’s a slow process that requires a huge investment of time… it will take years to change people’s perceptions and improve their understanding of the importance of these species,” says Arunima.

“One of the spectacular conservation success stories is that of the Indian tiger. While the focus on tigers has benefited many other species and forest ecosystems have been revived, there is a feeling that the focus has been disproportionately placed on tigers, ”says NatWest’s Kumar. “These freshwater animals are just as important and they have a positive impact on water bodies. This is why the jury collectively thought that Arunima deserved this recognition.

Opinions expressed are personal

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