India 2012 – Freshwater Turtles

England 2012

Jan to March 2012: Next I am off to India and then Indonesia where I have been in contact for months with the conservation groups there. Force for the Forest, SOS Orangutans, Turtle Survival Alliance.

I have been working with Tortoise Welfare UK while in England, making their website and helping with the sanctuary. Through them have attended conservation conferences and talks. Many tortoises come from Indonesia and are very endangered there, so through the B.C.G. (British Chelonia Group) I am applying for funding from them to do initial research on tortoises over there: I have completed GPS training in the Lake District and will be taking out GPS devices and cameras for the rangers, then I can train them on the use of the equipment. I purchsed my own GPS unit in antisipation of this.

The core of the plan is to report on everything I can and feel is worthy. The main group I shall be with is Force for the Forest. I have further taught myself the GPS unit and the Garmin software Base Camp from end to end.

After three months in Indonesia I shall head back to Portugal for a festival, well even conservationists need a break! Then to Morocco to do further tortoise research. After this I hope to join a Sea Shepherd ship for a few months.

India 2012

Unfortunately the funding from the British Chelonia Group was unsuccessful due to my lack of academic qualifications, therefore validity of my potential researches. However I promised to report on what I do find. SOS Orangutans said that I would be unable to work with them in Indonesia due to lack of work permit, the same was true of Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) in Indonesia. As it would take months to get the visas required. Which is a shame I found out this late on as initially I had months in which to prepare. They also say an open ended offer of help is difficult to place.

These projects were secondary to the main project Force for the Forest which is still all systems go.

Wed 9th May 2012

I headed for Karnatica in India as the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) working with the Madras Crocodile Bank said I could help with a survey. I spoke to Force for the Forest in Indonesia and we decided fore filing the survey was a good idea.

I entered the state of Karnatica thinking it was all very nice. Lots of trees and wildlife. The bus crammed on his breaks at one point and a huge snake passes over the road in front of us. (Talking with Shashwat later we decide it was indeed a King Cobra due to markings, size and shape.) Plenty of monkeys are seen on the roadside. Then I realise this is a reserve. At the point the reserve ends the carnage begins. Now we have a rural landscape with cows and crops. The most shocking thing was the degree of logging. Villages crammed with chopped trees. After passing though a fairly poor India for sometime the reserves start again as we close in on Dandeli. However here is not rosy with quite a lot of agriculture and logging encroaching. The town of Dandeli is a typical Indian town, noisy, smelly and dusty. Though there are a lot of trees and wildlife, particularly birds, than a average Indian town.

Shashwat was delayed in getting to me and I then spent four nights in Dandeli alone. Lucky I have writing my novel to keep me occupied!

Tue 15th May 2012

Shashwat was delayed getting away from other projects and in trying to get a wildlife permit. Though he now has a permit for the whole of India we need to get local permits. Traveling on the bus 30mins to a town and an administration building we are then told we need to head to another town 3 hours away. Traveling on the bus is not so simple in India and we need to wait for another the next day.

Shashwat wishes to survey soft shelled turtles, ask questions of locals and fishermen, visit markets and the turtle habitats near fishing villages.

Talking and staying with fishermen

Now with permissions and after talking to the Haliyal Forest Department and Fisheries Department we are lent a motorbike by the owner of a wildlife resort. Armed with a questionnaire for the fishermen we head to a Joida a small town where the fishermen live nearby. We spend the night at the Supe Reservoir and have put out a net specially to catch soft shelled turtles. We have no luck in catching any. The meal the fisherman Santosh cooked for us over an open fire was superb!

Sun 20th May 2012

We attend a talk about snakes at Kolgi Wildlife Resort where, unfortunately I understand nothing as the talk is not in English. I must learn the language! At the end the snake man has several snakes to handle. Kolgi GPS co-ordinates: 15.09949N 074.37950E

Mon 21st May 2012

Long drive to Anshi Wildlife Camp, Shashwat does crocodile talk, then a long drive back.

Tue 22nd May 2012

The net catches a male softshelled turtle, 13kgs, 42inches long! We implant a DCW tag and let it go. Leith’s softshell turtle (Nilssonia leithii). On first seeing him I declared that he was ‘lovely’ as in beautiful, Shashwat took it to mean ‘cute and friendly’ and said: “No he isn’t!” The turtle was indeed so beautiful, more than is clear in the photos. He was very aggressive and would bite hard at anything near his reach. Though he was content to sit there and not move about as we photographed him. What struck me most were his eyes which were very sensitive to movement and very mobile. Later I named him Patrick.

Wed 23rd May 2012

Made a large banner for the World Turtle Day. Drove to Bison Wildlife Resort and Shashwat does a talk on soft shelled turtles.

Thur 24th May 2012

Went to stay at Supe Reservoir again and the fisherman Santosh casts our special turtle net. In the morning no turtle but a lot of damage to the net we assume they got away.

Fri 24th May 2012

Last day in Dandeli and we visit another wildlife lodge to present them with the banner for World Turtle Day. Then we go with a forest ranger to rescue a cobra snake from a house and release it in the forest. Then at 8:30PM we head to the sleeper bus destined for Bangalore. I stay with Shashwat and his family for one night before my flight to Indonesia.

An Englishman

Shashwat said that having an Englishman with him opened doors much more quickly than usual, but could also raise the price. Therefore he always decided when I should come along to a meeting (to sit there like a mute) or not. The thinking was that if I had come all the way from England to see a turtle then I must be keen and shouldn’t be disappointed.

On the other hand when I first arrived in Dandeli I had a lot of trouble particularly at the local restaurant as the waiters got stressed that I couldn’t speak their language. One of them used to tap the table and almost shout: “What?!” when I needed service. When I had an Indian friend though the tide changed and they couldn’t do enough for us. The said waiter, once told by Shashwat that I thought he had been a bit rude to me, then secretly came to shake my hand and ask my name. Shashwat also found that he was considered my cool having an English friend!

Why are freshwater softshelled turtles important?

In a certain village in India where they worship the turtle there are a complete lack of mosquitoes as the turtles eat the larvae. There was also a case where 50 turtles were released into a stretch of river in order to clean it up. The turtles take out things that should not be there and aerate the water by borrowing in the substrate of the river.

Why are they in danger?

Turtles and all chelonia are being eaten at a frightening rate. Not only by the Chinese but by locals who cannot afford any other meat. The calipee (towards the back of the shell) on the turtle is considered a delicacy and is removed while the turtle is alive, it is also used in Chinese medicine. They are highly endangered.

This article written by me & Shashwat for T.S.A. newsletter

Having assisted and being involved in the conservation activities of Tortoise Welfare UK and the British Chelonia Group, it was but natural for me to come into contact with Turtle Survival Alliance-an organisation engaged across the globe in securing endangered chelonian populations. As I knew I was heading to India and Indonesia towards volunteering in field conservation projects, I asked about projects in India and was directed to contact Shashwat Sirsi, the Senior Project Officer in Southern India. I was then invited to join him in the town of Dandeli, in north western Karnataka. My journey from Goa to Dandeli involved multiple bus changes, along the circuitous roads of the Western Ghats and the verdant scenery from my window-seat was the only consolation to my travel sick self. Nagging doubts regarding the survey objective also began to assert themselves, for I had been told that these surveys were a joint initiative of the Turtle Survival Alliance and the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust. A mention of the latter entity had me unsure as to whether we would be surveying for crocodiles, which scared more than interested me.

When I met Shashwat on the 13th of May, I was so glad to dispel those doubts and find the survey was to locate populations of the endangered and endemic Leith’s softshell turtle (Nilssonia leithii)- also Shashwat explained to me that the joint initiative of T.S.A and M.C.B.T, which I was assisting in, was the India Turtle Conservation Program. The next few days were spent laying the all-important groundwork of our surveys through meetings at the Wildlife and Territorial Divisions of the Karnataka State Forest Department as well as meeting resort owners and naturalists in the area. This proved useful in choosing likely sites to survey and local fishermen that could be contacted to assist in sampling. I must add that, as an Englishman, I was something of a curiosity in the small town of Dandeli- which had its pros and its cons. For instance, Shashwat mentioned that there were several occasions when the people we met were far more receptive to our cause than if he visited alone, while similarly he also insisted that he almost always paid double for the rickshaw owing to my presence!

It is necessary to mention, Mr Mahendra Kumar, a wildlife resort owner, whom we met at the onset of our visit, was especially kind and supportive to us by lending us a motorbike to get about and introducing us to local fishermen. Dr R.N. Talekar, the Assistant Director of Fisheries at Haliyal, was also extremely helpful towards the objective of our surveys and provided us a list of fishing villages and directed us to the Fishermen’s Co-operative at Joida. Near Joida, at a makeshift thatch and bamboo structure which functioned as a tea-stall and doubled up as a general store we met Santosh the fisherman. He was superbly helpful and tied a seine net in the backwaters of the Kali River. The news of the first attempt at catching a turtle was negative. Santosh re-cast the net and the next report was that we had one! We travelled there post haste and I witnessed a beautiful creature to behold. We weighed, measured and implanted a Decimal Coded Wire tag, and let him go back in the reservoir.
I feel privileged to have been part of this two week long survey and am keen to spread the word about these superb reptiles. I have now moved onto Indonesia and the focus as always is chelonia. I also heard recently from Shashwat that they captured another three of these magnificent animals from the site and I can’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy that I am not there to witness it!! Returning to help T.S.A. India in the future is a must!