TSA Board Member Visits Project Sites in India

by Lonnie McCaskill 

TSA Board Member Lonnie McCaskill dedicates a significant amount of his personal time to serving as mentor to the incredibly hard-working TSA India team. He spent March 8-31, 2014 visiting program sites throughout India with the program's director, Shailendra Singh. This is his trip report. Enjoy!

I arrived in Lucknow on the morning of March 8th. After taking a brief rest, we headed to the Kukrail Gharial Breeding Center for a Uttar Pradesh Forestry Department (FD) training class for the capture and transport of crocodiles. This was the end of a week-long training for the FD that the TSA staff participated in by teaching turtle triage during confiscations, identification and handling. Shailendra Singh (Director, TSA India), Dr. Disha Sharma and I all gave presentations during this annual training of the FD as part of our growing partnership with the department at the request of FDO Dr. Rupak De. After the training, the next day was spent going over all of the animals TSA holds there and looking over some of the areas that have been identified as possible future turtle and tortoise enclosures. The new Laboratory for Aquatic Biology (L.A.B.) looks fantastic and is getting stocked and equipped to be our headquarters for quick assist for confiscations and rescues in the region. It is winter in India now and the Chitra were doing great. There was one that had showed some signs of possible respiratory infection but was improving with advice from Dr. Terry Norton (Turtle Survival Center) and the treatment Disha was providing. It could have possibly been due to stress from overcrowding. Once removed and isolated from the group it began acting more normally.

Kukrail continues to impress me with the potential and possibilities of what could be India’s own Turtle Survival Center. After two years of dismal grant attempts to raise money for the center, the facility and team are stretched to the limits. We have been given the green light by the Chief Wildlife Warden to charge fees for our nature walks and other outreach programs, which could potentially be a money generator, but not without some investment.

North to Terai! There we spent a day looking over the gharial release site as part of the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund grant for Terai. The animals are doing great and the India team picked a perfect place for the introduction and will utilize this or something similar to the side creek for future turtle soft releases. We went and surveyed the property for another TSA education building and the FDO of the area is very happy that we are looking into this. Site has been selected and negotiations under way for acquiring it. On March 11, we headed for the village of Ghariata on the Chambal River to check on the TSA hatchery and headstart facility. Met Dr. Jeff Lang there and was able to discuss more about the Gharial program and release. Dr. Lang has been studying Gharial along the Chambal for almost six years. TSA shares the field station with him at this location.

At this time, there were 115 Batagur nests at the hatchery, including both Batagur dhongoka and kachuga. These hatcheries are manned 24/7 by TSA staff for nearly six months during the nesting and hatching season. Conditions are harsh and remote with temps often climbing to well into the 100‚Äôs. We were here for three days meeting TSA staff from other hatcheries along the river and discussing the program and its future. We did our first soft release last year with Batagur and of the ten radio-transmitted turtles, we are still tracking six even after the monsoons and another tagged animal was seen by another researcher in the area of the release. One of the tracked animals  was 80+ km down the river and two were near the original release site. As of April 2, we are protecting 800 nests (approximately 12,000 Batagur kachuga and dhongoka eggs) at three separate hatcheries along the Chambal River!

We then headed back to Lucknow to catch a flight to Kolkata so we could prepare for Batagur baska surveys in the southernmost tip of the Sunderbans, which borders Bangladesh. Our destination was to Mechua Island where the last reported nesting sites for Batagur baska were documented 20 years ago. Before this region was declared a world heritage site for tigers, commercial fishing had hammered the population of Batagur (as bycatch) to the point of extinction. In 2008, a small group of animals were found in village ponds in Bangladesh by TSA staff and another group was found in The West Bengal Forestry Department Headquarters at Sajnekhali within the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. Spefically, Shai (Director, TSA India) located six male and four female adult animals when this pond was surveyed. These animals had not had any surviving young due to the absence of nesting beach, nurseries and huge water monitor (Varanus salvator) and mongoose population. Partnering with the Forestry Department, the TSA made key recommendations regarding the husbandry of these animals and produced 33 hatchlings in 2012 and another 56 in 2013! A large pool and nesting beach was completely covered and fenced to keep out local predators. We were there during nesting season to survey the last known nesting beaches to see if in fact there were any Batagur nesting taking place in situ. We did find evidence of an Olive Ridley‚Äôs (Lepidochelys olivacea) nest showing suitability for nesting, but no active Batagur nest. There were only three islands in the area that had suitable nesting beaches.

Since we left this region during our trip, we have received word that all five females have nested at the Sajnekhali Headquarters! We also did habitat assessments while surveying the area checking salinity, depths and tidal creeks for possible soft release areas of headstarted turtles currently being raised. The fact that the area has now been declared off-limits for fishing and with the large tiger population in the area, it seems like the time is right for reintroduction. This project is part of a TSA Save our Species (SOS) grant and also receives support from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund.

We headed back to Kolkata to transfer to West Bengal the next day for the Workshop on Management of the Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) of Bhagabatpur Range Forestry Department. There is an active captive breeding facility here that has been experiencing high mortality in hatchlings and juveniles and requested our assistance to review and train staff. This was a day-long event where we went over egg collection, incubation, nesting materials, care of hatchlings and raising of neonates. Then we did hands on training for capture of two meter and larger crocs. This was attended by 25 Forestry Department staff members, volunteers and three Directors of the Forestry Departments in the Sunderbans.

In summary, I left the trip feeling inspired and energized by the team members in India who accomplish so much with relatively few resources. They make amazing things happen every day and are truly limited only by their funding in many instances. If you are interested in making a donation to help support and expand the TSA India program, you can rest assured that your donation will make a HUGE impact in the field, as every dollar truly makes a difference!