By Scott Trageser
The past year ended up being a great year for the turtles and tortoises of Bangladesh! Earlier in the year, the Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA) established the first in-country breeding center aimed at establishing breeding populations for any and all of the seven taxa of turtle and tortoise that inhabit the Chittagong Hill Tracts. These seven species include the Southeast Asian Softshell Turtle (Amyda ornata), Keeled Box Turtle (Cuora mouhotii), Assam Leaf Turtle (Cyclemys gemeli), Arakan Forest Turtle (Heosemys depressa), Elongated Tortoise (Indotestudo elongata), Asian Giant Tortoise (Manouria emys phayrei), and Assam Roofed Turtle (Pangshura sylhetensis).
Asian Giant Tortoises rest by the pond in their enclosure at Bhawal National Park.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts, a region in extreme southeast Bangladesh, is the only area with significant rises in elevation in the otherwise flat floodplain that comprises much of the country. Here, the last stands of old-growth tropical forest can be found ‚Äì if you're willing to make the long, arduous, and sometimes treacherous trip down! These hills remain the least explored area in the country, with the majority of exploratory research having occurred during British colonial times (1757 ‚Äì 1947). Since the departure of the British 70 years ago, the region has become politically complex to the extent that it is virtually inaccessible to outsiders. During this time, large tracts of old-growth forest have been removed by illegal logging and by shifting agriculture practices. Home to at least 30 globally-threatened species, the situation here is dire, and not only for Bangladesh: with this hilly terrain extending north into the Himalayas, any win or lose scenario here will be felt across the greater cross-boundary region.
The creation of the CCA's turtle breeding center was an important step for the conservation of the seven threatened turtle and tortoise taxa. Not only does it ensure that populations of them will survive in captivity within the country, but will also maintain breeding populations for intended progeny release. But where does one release turtles in a country with an average of 1,200 people per square kilometer? For this the CCA enlisted the help of the indigenous peoples.
Parabiologists record morphometric measurements on a Keeled Box Turtle.
Several tribes such as the Marma, Tripura, and Mro call the remote and sparsely populated Chittagong Hill Tracts home and, as conservationists are recently figuring out, leaving the fate of lands in the hands of the indigenous can offer more effective protection than what national governments can often deliver. With this in mind, the CCA has been working with indigenous leaders for over six years to provide their villages with sustainable, alternative livelihoods ‚Äì giving them the favorable option to once again act as stewards of the forest, rather than the destroyers.
For hundreds of years these tribes have called the great forests of the Chittagong Hill Tracts home and have lived in relative harmony there. This began to change in the 20th century when populations increased, temptations of modernity reached the villages, and conniving businessmen began grabbing up large tracts of forest and selling them off for logging rights. Now, much of this area has been cleared and the hills lay bare¬†‚Äì¬†offering little for forest-reliant cultures, and forcing them to move into government-declared protected areas such as the Sangu Matamuhuri Reserve Forest, where much of our work is focused. The indigenous peoples are well-aware of their impact on the last remaining old-growth forests in Bangladesh, but are left with no viable alternatives to the slash-and-burn agricultural practices that have become commonplace there. This is where the CCA has had its biggest impact ‚Äì giving the local people alternative livelihood options including: establishing plant nurseries, indigo plantations, primary schools, and the marketing of indigenous crafts.
A radio-telemetered Elongated Tortoise patrols the edge of a hillside crop.
Recently, in partnership with the Turtle Survival Alliance, the CCA was successful in establishing ten Indigenous Community Conservation Areas within the Chittagong Hill Tracts. These conservation agreements with local villages are protecting 500 hectares (1,236 acres) of critical habitat for at least 30 threatened species including our beloved turtles but also tigers, pangolins, bears, and more. We have reformed and trained hunters to instead pursue a life protecting their forests. These 'parabiologists' are in charge of monitoring and reporting any threats to their land and collecting research data for our team. It is our hope to soon release hatchling Asian Giant Tortoises and Arakan Forest Turtles from our breeding center into these protected areas; repopulating the hills with the turtles that once roamed freely here. In several years we hope to rehabilitate large tracts of forest to create corridors between healthy patches, allowing the forest and turtles to retake the land. Conservation breeding at its finest!
Recognizing the importance of these Indigenous Community Conservation Areas, a prominent Bangladeshi foundation¬†‚Äì Prokriti O Jibon Foundation, translated as Nature and Life¬†‚Äì held an award ceremony for one of these pioneering indigenous chieftains. Menni Mro was given an environmental hero award for his efforts, which was broadcasted on national TV. The fame from this will make him a local celebrity overnight and surely act as a catalyst for more villages to follow suit, so that, together, they can save the last wild places of Bangladesh.
A young Arakan Forest Turtle at the CCA's facility in Bhawal National Park.
If you're interested in hearing more about the CCA's projects or to contribute to their cause, visit their website at www.conservationalliance.org and be sure to keep an eye out for the upcoming 2017 TSA Magazine for more details about their breeding facility!