There’s a baby turtle clinging to my big toe. Two others break away from the mass exodus to the river and climb on to my ankle. I keep still, letting the hatchlings gather a little security before they enter the waters of the Chambal River.
The Chambal Valley is everything Bollywood movies have led me to believe: gorges, arid scrubland, pockets of green between vast expanses of brown. The long walk down to the river involves negotiating pointed, broken stones on a trail flanked by jagged, rust hillocks on both sides. This landscape is surreal. There’s even the Bhawani temple, famous as a ransom drop-off location for the region’s bandits. Besides its human predators, the infamous ravines of the Chambal have also hosted endangered animal predators and their prey.
This river is the only place in India where the critically endangered red-crowned roofed turtle (batagur kachuga) lives. I’m here to witness hatchlings being released into the Chambal River. The riverbank is dotted with tiny shapes (each nest contains 9-35 eggs) moving slowly towards the water, driven purely by instinct, under the watchful eye of the Turtle Survival alliance (TSA) group. This organisation works tirelessly across India to prevent endangered turtle populations from dying out. In the Chambal, this means protecting three endangered species.
“Chambal is the first riverine sanctuary in India,” says Shailendra Singh, country head of TSA. “It is a biodiversity hotspot with some extremely endangered species surviving in these waters. It is also home to a significant wild gharial population. You can see smaller populations in limited habitats in Corbett and Katarniaghat along the Indo-Nepal border but with 330 specimens here, they are a sustainable wild breeding population.” In the distance, we spot a gharial lying half submerged in the river. I register that my feet are in the same water as the long-snouted crocodile.
On the bright side, both the endangered gharial and red-crowned roofed turtle have been lucky. Because the Chambal ravines harboured feared dacoits, both reality and legend kept people away for decades, naturally preserving the area’s biodiversity. Singh shares an anecdote about senior researcher Dhruvjyoti Basu’s run-in with the Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi in the 1980s. It was only after the “last lion of Chambal”, dacoit Nirbhay Gujjar, was killed in 2005 that people started making their way into the valley. Sand mining, riverbed agriculture, and clandestine hunting followed. In fact, now the hunting is relentless, single-minded. The market is booming despite the fact that the poachers from local communities get just a few hundred rupees for each turtle while the middlemen and traders take home a big part of the loot. The demand for turtles for use in traditional Chinese medicine as aphrodisiacs, for shells as showpieces, and as pets, continues. I learn it’s illegal to keep any native Indian species of turtles as a pet and make a mental note to inform friends who are breaking the law without knowing it.
Conservation is tough in this region. For starters, the River Chambal originates in Madhya Pradesh, flows through Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Three states share its water, which leads to its own set of problems. Sadly, Singh says that all they can do is delay the animal’s extinction. I’ve heard tiger conservationists say this with crushing certainty. I understand the rationale—when a species is under attack, there’s little you can do. But I remain hopelessly optimistic. Especially as I look around me now, at Singh and his team of eco-warriors nudging the hatchlings towards the water, showing us the correct way to hold them, and documenting numbers.
TSA is full of passionate people who work under harsh temperatures and tough conditions with minimal funds. Living in villages without basic facilities, with local communities that are in direct conflict with animals is not easy. Despite that conflict, they work to get village kids involved in community activities for conservation and with organisations like state forest departments and traffic India to help enforce laws and combat illegal activities. Just a few weeks ago, they helped catch a consignment of 150 turtles and sent them to Kukrail, a government river reptile rehabilitation facility in Lucknow.
The turtles have their own arsenal. They can control the size and sex of their eggs and decide between quality and quantity. They can even lay them in phases if they sense a threat. I’d say these are pretty good reasons to hope.
I look at the hatchlings still on my foot, pick them up, and put them on the sand in the direction of the river. I cannot escort them to the water; they will need to orient themselves and retain this walk in their memory. The females are said to return to this exact spot a decade later to lay their own eggs. Nature is weird and wonderful. As the water envelops the babies, I am over-come by a fierce protectiveness. I dismiss the two per cent survival rate and hope the river carries them all someplace safe.
Appeared in the August 2014 issue as “Slow and Steady”.
TSA works with volunteers and encourages conservation and awareness. Apply if your interest is in the turtles you’re trying to protect and if you have a skill set to share, not just because you need a place to visit over the weekend.
Sejal Mehta is a writer and editor. She is consultant editor at Marine Life of Mumbai, and writes about science, wildlife, travel, fiction and is a published author of children's books. Her past work includes Lonely Planet Magazine India, National Geographic Traveller India, Nature inFocus.