The Chambal river landscape is semi-arid. It is in this region, marked by gullies and ravines and spanning three of India’s largest states, that the critically endangered Batagur kachuga turtle is found. Commonly known as the red-crowned roofed turtle, the male of the species exhibits dimorphism by producing distinct colours on the head, red, blue and yellow, to attract females during the breeding season. In this habitat, less than 500 adult females survive.

The large freshwater turtles of the Batagur genus are found in the 425 km-long Chambal river, which flows along the National Chambal Sanctuary that was set up in 1979. “The medium flowing river altogether supports eight species of freshwater turtles, of which two are Batagurs,” Shailendra Singh of Turtle Survival Alliance India, a global conservation organisation, said.

He noted that the river and the associated sanctuary is perhaps one of the last viable habitats for the Batagur kachuga. The other important species found here is the Batagur dhongoka or the three-striped roofed turtle.

The three-striped roofed turtle is one of the important freshwater turtle species found in the Chambal river landscape. Photo credit: Pawan Pareek/ TSA

In Chambal which was once infamous for dacoits, turtle protection work by Turtle Survival Alliance started around 2006 after it identified 10 species of freshwater turtles that it deemed needed immediate attention. Of this, three endangered species were present in Chambal.

In these 15 years of turtle conservation in the Chambal landscape, eighteen major turtle habitats have been identified along the river and 5,000 Batagur nests protected by Turtle Survival Alliance. Activities involve the translocation of vulnerable nests to hatcheries and the release of young turtles fitted with transmitters to help track their movement.

“In 2013, radio telemetry on released animals showed that they travelled up to 200 km,” Singh added. “It clearly revealed that more coordination was needed among Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh which fall in Chambal as [wildlife] landscapes do not go by state boundaries.”

Young turtles are taken into centres, to protect them from monsoonal floods, where they grow in size for two years before being released into the wild. Photo credit: Pawan Pareek/ TSA

More recently, the Turtle Survival Alliance has introduced a spatial monitoring and reporting tool for turtle monitoring and conservation in the landscape. The tool, which is basically an app, will help evaluate critical turtle habitats and nesting sites and aid forest department officials and Turtle Survival Alliance staff report on turtles. This in turn will help quantify and determine the next level of threats for the species.

Perceived threats

The Batagur kachuga or the red-crowned roofed turtle is found in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. In India, the Chambal sanctuary is among the last viable habitats. But a number of factors make the Chambal sanctuary vulnerable not only for this species but for all freshwater turtles.

For one, illegal sand mining is a threat to these animals that use the sandy riverbank for basking as well as nesting. Other problems include pumping out of the water from the Chambal river for agriculture in lean seasons and overfishing. Additionally, the turtles have to compete for space on the sandbanks with vine crops such as watermelons, cucumbers and musk melons are cultivated there.

Farmer Abdesh Kumar Rajput from Etawah district of Uttar Pradesh, a part of the Chambal landscape, grows melons from January to May on the riverbanks. Rajput told Mongabay-India that his family has been growing these crops for three generations. “Apart from me, there are 60 others from my village. Cultivation takes place on about 13 acres of land till May,” said Rajput. “After that floods come due to monsoon and cultivation stops.”

Vine crop cultivation takes place on the sandy banks of the Chambal river till May. Farmers take precautions by not disturbing the pits where the turtles lay their eggs. Photo credit: Pawan Pareek/ TSA

The farmer explained that watermelons grown on sandy banks have a unique taste. That is why farmers like him continue to grow these crops even though they take care not to disturb the pits where turtles lay eggs. Rajput said that the turtles prefer specific nesting sites like high sandbanks and generally avoid farmers’ fields.

Spreading awareness among the likes of Rajput is important so that they end up as conservation partners, said Pawan Pareek who has been working as project officer in the Turtle Survival Alliance since 2018, and is based in Garhaita village in Etawah where there is a turtle conservation centre developed in 2008.

“In the early days [of the programme], after the eggs hatched, many turtles face threats from monsoonal floods which cause high mortality,” Pareek said. “Now, they are taken to the centre where they grow in size for two years and weigh at least 1 kg. In the wild, turtles can weigh up to 30-35 kg.”

Apart from activities like protection and monitoring of nests and raising turtles in captivity, awareness programmes in government schools, located in villages within 5-km radius of the sanctuary, are regularly organised to draw students into conservation.

An important landscape

The presence of several important species ensured that Chambal was declared a sanctuary for proper protection. Range officer at the Chambal National Sanctuary, Ramkishan Singh Rathore said conservation is vital in this landscape marked by rugged beauty. Apart from reptiles and smoothed coated otters, Chambal also supports resident and migrant bird species.

The rugged beauty of the Chambal river attracts species like reptiles, otters, leopard, nilgai, wolves and more. Photo credit: Pawan Pareek/ TSA

“The Chambal landscape has been handed over to the forest department for protection,” Rathore added. “Today, local communities largely refrain from fishing and sand mining has been controlled to a great extent which is a positive thing. However, Madhya Pradesh should take proper action to prevent mining. It should be under control in Bhind and Morena districts.”

Diwaker Srivastava, Deputy Conservator of Forests, National Chambal Sanctuary project, Agra said the landscape is suitable for turtles as the animals get proper places for nesting and basking. “The ravines act as a protective barrier during heavy floods when many turtles are able to prevent themselves from being washed away.”

A leopard in the ravines of Chambal river. Photo credit: Pooja Rathod/ Wikimedia Commons

According to Pareek, as Chambal was once ruled by dacoits, human settlements were sparse along the river banks. As a result, the disturbance was less and wildlife survived. Today, one can still spot leopards, nilgai, deer, wild cats and wolves in the ravines interspersed with forests.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.