A pair of highly endangered species of turtles, that was released in Indian waters as a part of a conservation program but swam hundreds of kilometres into Bangladesh crossing the international boundary, has brought the two countries together to explore the possibility of a joint conservation program, like that of the Royal Bengal Tiger.

In January this year, 10 Northern River Terrapins (Batagur Baska) – one of the most endangered species of turtles in the world – were released into the wild from a breeding centre in the Sunderbans. By February end, four of them had crossed the international boundary and swum hundreds of kilometres into Bangladeshi waters.

“It was for the first time that Batagur Baska turtles were released into the wild fitted with transmitters to generate data about their habitat and home range. As the turtles were fitted with GPS transmitters, they were sending us signals revealing their location all through. Four had strayed into Bangladesh, somewhere around Khulna,” said Tapas Das, director of the Sunderban Tiger Reserve (STR).

On February 24, experts from the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) which along with the STR was running the Batagur Baska conservation program got a call from some fishermen in Bangladesh saying that they had caught a turtle fitted with a GPS transmitter.

“The GPS transmitters had our helpline mentioned at the back. The fishermen called us when they found the turtles and dismantled the transmitter. The fishermen were told about the ongoing conservation program in India and were advised to hand the animals to the nearest forest office in Bangladesh,” said Shailendra Singh who heads the TSA in India.

The animals were handed over to the forest department in Bangladesh in Khulna from where they were taken to a turtle facility at Karamjal in Bangadesh Sunderbans. At Karamjal the Bangladesh forest department runs its own Batagur Baska conservation project.

A week later one more turtle was caught by Bangladeshi fishermen and handed over to the forest department in Khulna. It was taken to the same facility at Karamjal. A third turtle was also caught by the fishermen but they released it back into the water.

This prompted the STR and TSA authorities to take up the matter with their Bangladeshi counterparts and explore whether a joint conservation program could be initiated for the turtles across the Sunderbans. Experts from the Vienna Zoo in Austria who are helping the Bangladesh forest department in their conservation program were also present.

The Sunderbans is the world’s largest mangrove delta formed by River Ganges and River Brahmaputra and sprawls over 10,000 sq km across India and Bangladesh. Around 40% of this is located in India and is home to many rare and globally threatened wildlife species such as the Royal Bengal Tiger and the estuarine crocodile. In India it is confined to the southern tip of West Bengal and spreads over two districts – South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas.

“On March 10 we held a virtual meeting with Bangladesh forest officials and discussed how the conservation program may be taken forward and the turtles could be brought back to India. We all agreed that it was a common program for a common cause. As the turtles were generating lot of data Bangladesh has agreed to hand over the turtles so that the program may continue,” said Das.

The only animal for which India and Bangladesh has signed a MoU for a joint conservation program is the Royal Bengal Tiger. Both countries have around 100 tigers each in their part of the Sunderbans.

The state forest department and the TSA have already come up with a recovery vision plan for the Batagur Baska till 2030. While there are around 20 species of turtles found in West Bengal, this is the first such vision plan for any turtle in the state. The only other turtle which has a vision plan for its conservation is the Black Softshell Turtle.

“The Batagur Baska vision plan too speaks of formulation of strategies for initiating transboundary conservation program with Bangladesh. This would include developing a system to exchange data, holding meetings and utilising the CoP and SAARC platforms and exchanging animals to infuse new bloodlines so that a viable population of the turtles could be established within the next one decade,” said Das.

Even though the species was once widespread in the mangroves and estuaries of West Bengal and Odisha, overfishing led to a rapid decline in the population. It is believed that only a handful of these animals may now be living in the wild in the Sunderbans.

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