One of the most narrated children’s fables include the story of the hare and the tortoise, and how tortoise by being ‘slow and steady’ won the race. Indeed, tortoise and another famed member of its same Chelonian family, turtle, has been for us a picture of wisdom and calm. While the oeuvre of children’s literature may be replete with stories and illustration of turtles, wise and otherwise, chances are that few of us have seen one in its natural habitat.
The reason, one may presume and quite rightly so, that turtles (and tortoises) are known for their reclusive nature. However, the decrease in the sightings of turtles go beyond their natural shyness and tell a tale which is much sombre than the stories one finds in such books-it is a tragic narrative of a rapidly declining population. An initiative in a small town in Uttar Pradesh is fast gaining importance for its work in turtle conservation.
Narora, beside the river Ganges in the District Bulandshahr of Uttar Pradesh, has gained some significance of late due to Narora Atomic Power Station (NAPS) being located there. NAPS is one of the plants under Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) which is under the administrative control of Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).
NPCIL Units, situated at different locations of the country, take up voluntary projects in the area of nature conservation through the programme titled “Environmental Stewardship Program (ESP)”. One of the projects it has undertaken is that of turtle conservation.
River Ganges over the years has undergone drastic changes in terms of decrease in the number of specie due to habitat loss, excessive fishing utilizing gillnets, sand mining and island farming. The members of this ESP program have been conducting survey in the river Ganges and taking up projects. During different surveys, members observed decline in the number of turtles in the river. They also observed that the turtles which used to be visible at a particular time of the year were no longer visible and even if some sightings were made, their numbers were continually declining.
Turtles are an island nesting species-they lay the eggs in sand, cover it up and leave. After around sixty to seventy days, depending upon the specie, hatchlings appear and move towards water and enter the sea, where their life is constantly under threat by the presence of big fish and water pollutants. Bearing these problems in mind, the members struck upon the idea to hatch rear and release the neonates of turtles in the river Ganges to increase the turtle population.
The main constraints which lay in the way of the eggs remaining in the nest included island and bank farming, sand mining, gillnet fishing and change in the course of the river-factors that cannot be controlled by intervention. The employees of NPCIL thus came up with the proposal of removing the eggs from the nesting sites, hatch them in a hatchery, rear them for about a year and release them into the river.
With the plan finalized, a hatchery was constructed with a bio-filter to remove ammonia and heaters to control the temperature automatically of the water during winter. The eggs were properly removed as per procedure formulated during plan and were kept in the hatchery, and after a period of time, the hatchlings appeared. Subsequently, the hatchlings were released. The total number of turtles released till date is 227. The facility at present has 131 hatchlings of Batagur dhongoka.
An increase in human population and simultaneous increase in dependency on the Ganges has been causing degradation of the natural habitat of the softshell turtle. Habitat protection remains the only viable long term means to ensure the survival of these species.
The ‘Project Turtle’ is an effort in the direction of protecting these famous river scavengers. Further, this activity is supplementing the effort of Government of India with ‘Namami Gange’, a program envisaged under CSR and Sustainability. If the project does succeed in its mission, we can indeed hope to sight the turtles that formed such an essential part of stories from our childhood.