The Northern River Terrapin (Batagur Baska) is a giant river turtle that can reach a length of up to 60 cm (23.6 in). They lived in river mouths and mangrove forests in North Eastern India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Until the turn of this century, countless turtles dotted the rivers, however, overfishing and harvesting of eggs have pushed this species to the brink of extinction.
How big is the threat?
The Northern River Terrapin ranks among the Top 3 most endangered turtle species in the world. There are only a few adult animals remaining and there are no more than 13 sexually mature females worldwide! In India and Bangladesh in the 90’s, no Northern River Terrapins werefound, and searches of natural habitats were unfortunately also unsuccessful. The Northern River Terrapin had been classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and added to their list of the Top 25 most endangered turtle species.
We searched for populations in Orissa (Odhissa) and West Bengal and later expanded this search to the mangrove forests in Bangladesh. After almost three years of field work and research into the illegal turtle trade, we discovered the first three Northern River Terrapins living in a pond in a village in southern Bangladesh. As gentle herbivores, these turtles were often considered good luck charms in fish breeding ponds. The eggs were a renowned delicacy so after the female laid eggs, they were immediately dug up and consumed.
We purchased these 3 turtles; then relocated them to a protected reserve in Bhawal National Park with the support of the Bangladesh Forest Department, and ‘Project Batagur’ was officially born!
In addition, Turtle Island and the Vienna Zoo co-founded a project to create the only Northern River Terrapin breeding group outside of their countries of origin. In May 2010, two baby northern River Terrapins hatched at Turtle Island. This was the first instance worldwide of successful captive breeding for this species. The controlled breeding and hatching of this turtle in captivity is an immediate measure that is necessary to guarantee the survival of this species. Our breeding group at Turtle Island has reproduced every single year and contains around 20% of first-generation animals worldwide. They will play an important role in the long-term preservation of this extraordinary species with the goal of eventual rewilding.
We eventually added an additional breeding station in Bangladesh and they now house more than 20 male and 8 female Northern River Terrapins. Since 2012, these turtles have produced more than 200 hatchlings. In spite of these successes, we have more work before launching our project ‘Batagur Going Home.’
In 2016, we attached satellite transmitters to two large males and released them in Sundarbans National Park. Unfortunately, we lost the signal from one of the males after one week. The turtle had come too close to a fishing village. The second male was returned to our centers after being caught twice by fishermen.
In 2018, 2019 and 2022, we released five more animals each year that all met the same fate. Unfortunately, the habitat range for this particular turtle far exceeds the area covered by the nature reserve or its control, since commercial fishing in much of the area is illegal .
Without awareness campaigns, further reintroduction efforts into the wild will not be successful.
Only unconventional collaboration with poachers, catchers, turtle traders led to success. We are especially grateful to Sures Das, Sman Sirker and Sanjiban Gosh for their effort to find turtles in temple ponds.