Visitors to the Chhatbir zoo can consider themselves lucky if they manage a glimpse of a giant turtle in the small lake. This is an Indian softshell turtle weighing 75-85 kg and was rehabilitated here after it created terror in Patiala’s Rajindera lake during a cleaning-up operation in 2014. Municipal workers, whose boat was rocked by this turtle, had stopped cleaning operations and complained that a crocodile was lurking in the dying lake! The turtle was brought to the zoo where it refused to eat all manner of delicacies offered such as fresh veggies, fish etc. The turtle was habituated to consumption of decaying food dumped by the Kali Mata mandir into Rajindera lake and was performing the role of nature’s scavenger for wetlands just as vultures cleanse carcasses. The zoo had to ward off pressure from animal rights activists led by Maneka Gandhi, who wanted the turtle sent back to Rajindera lake when that was not a feasible consideration. The turtle was eventually freed from its zoo cage and lives happily in the lake.
May 23 is celebrated as ‘World Turtle Day’ (WTD). Turtles have existed for over 220 million years but human intervention has rendered them the most endangered group of vertebrates. A third of global turtle species could go extinct in our lifetimes.
I spoke to the India director of Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Dr Shailendra Singh—an award-winning conservationist—on how the goal of ‘zero extinctions’ could be achieved. TSA is in the vanguard of turtle conservation and Lucknow-based Dr Singh has conducted camps at Chhatbir to impart skills in captive management/rehabilitation.
‘’Protection of habitats is the key as river banks are being dredged, waters polluted and wetlands erased. Once habitats are saved, turtles will naturally thrive. As citizens, we must stop buying turtle pets as this fuels poaching. We have launched a campaign on WTD 2016 asking pet owners to surrender Indian or foreign/exotic turtles to zoos. Pet owners must not dump foreign turtles in wetlands because they pose a threat to native species. Indian turtles seized from poachers must be rehabilitated scientifically as we can’t release species anywhere. Recently, in Kolkata, 200 seized Star tortoises were released into the sea. They must have perished because the Star tortoise is a land-based species,’’ said Dr Singh.
Stink in the tale
Swarms or bunches of snake hatchlings or sub-adults have surfaced in drains and bathrooms in Kharar, Kurukshetra and Fatehpur Jattan village (Dera Bassi) in past years. These were hacked or bludgeoned as hysterical locals mistook them to be venomous snakes. However, snakes found in such numbers and in such locations of human habitation are invariably the non-venomous Checkered keelbacks. In a virtual repeat of such episodes, minus the senseless killing part, print media and TV channels flashed a sensation last week that ‘’30 cobra babies’’ surfaced over three days from under the bathroom floor of a house in a Karnal peripheral village owned by Ravindra Singla. But the news was patently wrong as the hatchlings were again keelbacks.
The misinformation was at the behest of a local snake-rescue personnel, Satish Fafdana, who had removed the hatchlings and 2.5-foot mother snake from Singla’s bathroom and released them on a canal bank. Fafdana, who is recognised by the Forest department and uses rescue equipment bought for him by the department, perfectly well knew these were keelbacks.
But he could not resist exploiting the prevailing ignorance and snake phobia and passed off keelbacks as cobras to procure media publicity. “Fafdana did not tell me these were cobras when he rescued the snakes but later misled the media,’’ Singla told this writer.
The news outbreak led to much harassment as Singla’s family was terrorised and he was besieged with calls from people who thought that his house was a jinxed one and a den to endless numbers of venomous serpents.
When I questioned Fafdana, he very smartly covered his tracks by sending me a dated photograph of an adult cobra rescued from another house and passed it off as the ‘’mother of cobra babies rescued from Singla’s bathroom’’! Singla had counted 41 egg shells in his bathroom.
I sought the views of Vivek R Sharma, who is an authority on Indian snakes.
Sharma, on examining the ANI video reporting the so-called bathroom cobras and featuring Fafdana, Singla and the hatchlings, told me: These are keelback hatchlings. Cobras don’t lay so many eggs, usually 20-25 eggs in a clutch.
For a cobra to lay more than 30 eggs, the female needs to be 6-6.5 feet. Bathrooms are not preferred places for cobras to lay eggs as they prefer less disturbed places.
Keelbacks can lay eggs in debris or any moist place like a cavity in the floor. I had rescued 65 keelback hatchlings from a triangular-shaped gap in the stairs of a house in Jabalpur (Madhya Pradesh) along with a 4-foot female keelback.’’