Wild release marks giant forest turtles return to the hills of Bangladesh

  • Last month, researchers and villagers released 10 captive-bred Asian giant tortoises in Bangladesh’s Chattogram Hill Tracts to increase the number of endangered species in the wild, once believed to be extinct in the country.
  • Asian giant tortoises are critically endangered throughout their range in South and Southeast Asia due to heavy hunting pressure and habitat loss.
  • The rewilding of the batch of juvenile turtles is the first wild release of offspring raised in a breeding center dedicated to turtle conservation that was established in the Chattogram Hills in 2017 to protect the future of several rare and endangered species.
  • Through turtle conservation, researchers are working with local hill tribes to monitor local wildlife, curb hunting, and protect community-managed forests.

Bangladesh’s population of one of the world’s largest turtle species received a boost last month when researchers and villagers released 10 captive-bred juveniles into the evergreen forests of the Chattogram Hill Tracts. The move, in the rugged mountain range in the country’s far southeast bordering Myanmar and India, was the first rewilding of the Asian giant tortoise in the country.

The species, Manouria emys, is critically endangered due to heavy hunting pressure and habitat destruction throughout its range in South and Southeast Asia. Weighing 35 kilograms (77 pounds), it is the fourth largest turtle in the world and highly prized by subsistence hunters for its meat. Scientists believed the species was extinct in Bangladesh until 2011, when new hope was sparked by the discovery of a seashell in a remote corner of the Chattogram Hills.

“It confirmed that they still happen in that little pocket,” Shahriar Caesar Rahman, co-founder and CEO of Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA), a Bangladesh-based nonprofit, told Mongabay. Without any action, he said, the species would likely be completely lost within the next decade. “What we needed to do was increase the size of their captive population.”

Over the next few years, local hunters handed over several of the rare turtles to conservationists, and in 2017 the CCA established a captive breeding center to help secure the future of the reptile in collaboration with local communities, the Bangladesh Forestry Department and the American Turtle Association. Survival Alliance.

Today, the Turtle Conservation Center (TCC) in Bhawal National Park is home to Bangladesh’s first conservation breeding colonies, not only Asian giant tortoises, but also critically endangered Rakhine Forest turtles. extinction (Heosemys depressed) and elongated turtles (Indotestudo lying down) and endangered keeled box turtles (Cuora mouhotii).

One of the young Asian giant tortoises before release. Photo by Kowshikur Rahman / CCA

Slow but steady progress

The 10 newly released Asian giant tortoises hatched in 2019 and are the offspring of parents rescued from slaughter. By the age of 2.5, they are large enough to escape natural predators, but they will not begin to breed until they are 15 to 20 years old.

As with so many turtle lives, Rahman said he anticipates slow but steady progress in recovering the number in the wild. Although it took several years to start raising turtles, they are now reproducing regularly. Still, he reports that sudden cold snaps during the monsoon season can catch them off guard, resulting in the loss of eggs and hatchlings.

“We are still trying to figure out how to increase breeding success,” Rahman said, adding that he hopes they can produce 100 to 200 hatchlings per year to keep increasing the number of savages. This is a realistic goal, he said, as the high losses during egg incubation and hatching stages are somewhat offset by the extraordinary fecundity of the species – female Asian giant tortoises lay eggs. usually up to 50 eggs in a clutch.

The release is an important first step towards rewilding the species not only in Bangladesh, but also in Myanmar and India, where captive-breeding ‘insurance colonies’ for the species have also been established and anticipate. their first releases into the wild, said Rick Hudson. , President of the Turtle Survival Alliance.

“It’s been really rewarding to take animals that were sort of doomed and to be able to put them in a conservation program,” said Hudson. “They are heavily hunted… it is only in remote areas of unspoiled forest where they are still found. It was therefore important to develop breeding colonies for this species throughout their range in order to offer us options to restore them in some of these habitats. “

In addition to caring for hatchlings, providing a suitable breeding environment is a major challenge for this species, according to Hudson. The “perfect physical condition” of the 10 new releases is a testament to the quality of care given to turtles at TCC, he said.

“It’s a difficult species [to keep] in captivity because unlike species of turtles that nest, lay their eggs, and that’s it, this species is very primitive, ”said Hudson. “They build a nest much like a crocodilian. So you have to give them lots of organic matter and leaves and they will spend days building a huge nest – I saw these nests over 3ft [1 meter] high.”

Asian giant tortoise
The researchers show the turtles to villagers near the community-managed logging site. Photo by Kowshikur Rahman / CCA

Survival in the wild

Besides turtles and tortoises, the Chattogram Hill Tracts is one of Bangladesh’s last strongholds for many other animals. Recent investigations have found evidence of tigers (Panthera tigris), leopards (Panthera pardus), marble cats (Pardofelis marmorata), sambar deer (Unicoloured rusa), gaur (Bos gaurus), dhole (Cuon alpinus), several species of hornbills and rare primates such as the western hoolock gibbon (hoolock hoolock) and the Phayre leaf monkey (Trachypithecus phayrei).

But the region is opening up to colonization and development, placing the rainforest and its wildlife under increasing pressure from poaching, logging and agricultural expansion. Between 2001 and 2014, the region lost more than 30% of its forest cover.

Recognizing the precarious plight of the region’s biodiversity, Rahman and the CCA forged strong relationships with local people and communities to ensure that wildlife protection is at the forefront of decision-making.

Encouraging action at the local community level is a crucial aspect of the Asian giant tortoise rewilding project, according to Rahman. “Breeding is probably the easiest part of conserving this species,” he said. “The ultimate challenge is how to engage communities for the long term so that they don’t drive them out. “

To reduce turtle hunting in the region, the CCA has put in place conservation agreements with several hill tribe villages that involve moratoria on logging and hunting in demarcated areas. In return, the conservation organization supports schools, offers livelihood programs for local artisans, and trains former hunters as “parabiologists” or citizen scientists, who collect data and monitor species to help protect wildlife. local.

The village chief of the beneficiary community releases the very first resuscitated Asian giant tortoise in Bangladesh. Photo by Kowshikur Rahman / CCA

The Asian giant tortoises were released into a 200-hectare (490-acre) community forest plot managed under such an agreement and further governed by a village conservation committee operating under the supervision of the village chief. Each released turtle has been fitted with a GPS tracker so that local parabiologists can monitor their activity and ensure they do not stray into forest areas where the pressure of hunting and logging is not. managed.

Rahman had just returned from a surveillance trip when Mongabay interviewed him for this story. So what were the turtles doing with their newfound freedom? True to their nature, they hadn’t wandered far. They “mostly burrowed in the leaf litter and rested in the crevices of the trees,” Rahman said, “their activity pattern is quite relaxed at this time of year.”

While turtle conservation is a slow burn, the captive breeding center has helped turtles and turtles become flagship species for the protection of forests by local communities.

“We have to be realistic in the Bangladeshi context,” said Rahman. “It’s a country with one of the highest human densities, around 1,200 people per square kilometer, which puts enormous pressure on the remaining habitat. The conservation of larger species, which [would require] a larger area, is very difficult. Using these medium-sized species is therefore a realistic approach.

In addition to inspiring communities to protect their forests, reestablishing healthy wild populations of turtles and tortoises in the Chattogram landscape will also restore the key seed dispersal services they provide, thereby improving the potential for regeneration of the forest. the natural ecosystem of the region.

And this first version is just the beginning. Over the next several decades, the team hopes to replicate their approach to rewilding turtles in many other areas and communities of the Chattogram Hill Tracts.

“Our goal is to restore the landscape using turtle rewilding as a tool to engage the community,” said Rahman. “When you release an animal, people are involved and the forest can be protected to help other species as well. “

Banner image: The ten captive-bred juvenile Asian giant tortoises are fitted with radio transmitters at the Turtle Conservation Center in Bhawal National Park before their release. Photo by Kowshikur Rahman / CCA

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Animals, biodiversity, captive breeding, community forests, community-based conservation, conservation, critically endangered species, dry forests, endangered species, environment, ex situ conservation, extinction, forests, habitat degradation , habitat loss, happy environment, herpes, Hunting, Overexploitation, Protected Areas, Reptiles, Turtles And Turtles, Fauna

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