Policies and People | How a young conservationist is saving river turtles

For the last eight years, Arunima Singh, recipient of the NatWest Group Earth Heroes Award 2021, and her field team have been fighting tirelessly for turtles, Gangetic dolphins, marsh crocodiles, and gharials
Arunima Singh won the prestigious award not just for her exceptional efforts towards saving turtles, tortoises, crocodilians, and Gangetic dolphins, but also for devoting a large part of her time to a crucial activity: Raising the awareness levels of riverine communities and the general public about these freshwater species (TSA) PREMIUM
Arunima Singh won the prestigious award not just for her exceptional efforts towards saving turtles, tortoises, crocodilians, and Gangetic dolphins, but also for devoting a large part of her time to a crucial activity: Raising the awareness levels of riverine communities and the general public about these freshwater species (TSA)
Updated on Nov 17, 2021 12:59 PM IST
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Today is the 50th anniversary of Unesco’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme. Established in 1971 as an intergovernmental scientific programme, MAB pioneered the idea of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.

MAB’s 50th anniversary gave me the perfect opportunity to catch up with 31-year-old conservationist Arunima Singh, recipient of the NatWest Group Earth Heroes Save the Species Award 2021.

Rooting for low-key species

Arunima won the prestigious award not just for her exceptional efforts towards saving turtles, tortoises, crocodilians, and Gangetic dolphins, but also for devoting a large part of her time to a crucial activity: Raising the awareness levels of riverine communities and the general public about these freshwater species.

“The award is highly competitive. But the independent jury chose her because she has gone beyond the call of duty to inspire and engage rural and urban communities on conservation of these species,” said N Sunil Kumar, head of sustainable banking India and head of NatWest India Foundation, NatWest Group.

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

Arunima and the TSA team have rescued, rehabilitated, and released over 28,000 turtles, 25 Gangetic dolphins, six marsh crocodiles, and four gharials in the last eight years.

India is one of the world’s hotspots for turtle diversity. It has a total of 29 species of freshwater turtles (24) and tortoises (5). Freshwater turtles keep rivers, ponds, and freshwater sources clean by eating algal blooms and scavenging on dead matter, and therefore, also known as “vultures of the aquatic ecosystem.” But these species are under tremendous pressure due to 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 Conservation of Nature’s endangered list but don’t have protection under the Indian wildlife laws [for example, three-striped roofed turtle and crowned river turtle]. This policy needs to change because, without legal cover, it’s difficult to save them from poachers,” says Arunima.

She has also assisted with remarkable rescues, repatriation, and rehabilitation of distressed animal species.

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 pet trade.

For instance, in October, Hindustan Times reported that 266 turtles were rescued from Hyderabad through the joint effort of Uttar Pradesh forest department and TSA. The arrested poachers confessed that they poached these turtles from Gomti river near Lucknow. Dr Shailendra Singh, director, TSA-India, told HT that these species of turtles were poached to cater to the demand of illegal pet trade as they looked beautiful and people kept them in aquariums.

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

The Gomti connection

Arunima’s interest in freshwater habitat is deeply linked to river Gomti, which flows through Uttar Pradesh. As a child, she would travel along the river to her family village to meet her grandparents. “During those 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 her Master’s course in Life Science in 2010 proved 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 in TSA full-time,” she recounted. At present, she is pursuing a Ph.D., focusing on freshwater turtles.

At TSA, Arunima is involved in the turtle breeding programme, which means translocating turtle eggs from vulnerable nests along rivers; incubated safely and naturally in a sand hatchery. Once the juveniles are around 1,000 gms, they are released into waterways to help the wild population multiply further. Such studies are essential for the future conservation of species and devise a protocol for species’ survival.

In addition, she works on the nesting ecology of certain species, which means surveying rivers with fishermen, gathering information from them, and putting radio transmitters on the species for information about their movement and nesting patterns.

“The field work depends on the study design. If I put radio transmitters, I have to be near the river all the time during the nesting time,” says Arunima. It’s not one day’s output but very essential for the long-term conservation programme.

Outreach: Catch them young

“It’s very important to re-establish the connection of children with animals. Unless we establish that connection, it will be very difficult to save our wildlife. I was lucky to have an opportunity to make that connection at a young age,” Arunima reminisces. “When school children visit the TSA interpretation centre, I ensure that they get a chance to interact with turtles… This helps them develop not just an understanding about the natural world but also develop a sense of ownership”.

Another important aspect of her outreach effort is her work with riverine communities, frontline forest staff, and veterinarians. The work with riverine communities is about sensitising people about turtles and weaning them away from the rampant illegal trade in the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh.

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

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

The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    KumKum Dasgupta is with the opinion section of Hindustan Times. She writes on education, environment, gender, urbanisation and civil society. .

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Monday, January 24, 2022