Turtle Guardianship Bangladesh
The turtle guardianship project in Bangladesh is a very exciting grassroots project that works with a variety of species that are critically endangered and threatened. G.R.E.E.N has partnered with CARINIM (Center for Advanced Research in Natural Resources & Management). CARINAM is based in Bangladesh where a variety of ecosystems are at the doorstep of many chelonian species; most critically endangered and severely threatened due to poachers, human consumption, the pet trade, medicinal purposes, and taboo rituals. CARINAM has created a program in the Chittagong Hills in Southeast Bangladesh bordering Myanmar.
This region of the world has tropical deciduous forests that are home of Manouria Emys Phayrei (Burmese Black Tortoise), Indotestudo Elongata (Elongated Tortoise), Heosemys Depressa (Arakan Forest Turtle), Pangshura sylhetensis (Sylhet Roof Turtle), and Cuora Mouhotti (Keeled Box Turtle). This project has a huge benefit not only for the animals that our organization strives to keep out of danger, but also for the education benefits, which reinforces conservation by the local people. The Mro people of the Chittagong Hills are the key to the success in protecting these animals in this region. Before CARINAM began working with the Mro people through better education, the consuming, capturing and hunting of these species would certainly have ended in their deadly demise.
This project is sponsored in part by our non-profit organization to help get things rolling in the Chittagong Hills. These tortoise guardians are Mro villagers that once used to hunt these species but are now protecting them. CARINAM has educated and funneled the sponsorship funds to award salaries to the hunters, providing incentives to turn guardians of our shelled friends as opposed to their hunters.
Mro Tortoise Guardian Program:
A Model for Turtle Hunting Mitigation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh
Arakan Forest Turtle Heosemys depressa– Critically Endangered
Keeled Box Turtle Cuora mouhotii– Endangered
Asian Black Tortoise Manouria emys –Endangered
Elongated Tortoise Indotestudo elongata– Endangered
Sylhet Roof Turtle Pangshura sylhetensis-Endangered
Principal investigator: Shahriar Caesar Rahman
The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) lies in the southeast of Bangladesh. They are an extensive, hilly area as part of an 1800 km mountain range running from the eastern Himalayas in China to western Myanmar. This region falls within the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot and harbors many globally threatened chelonian fauna. Hunting appears to be the most immediate threat to turtles in this region. With no intervention hunting will likely cause large-scale, local extinctions of extant, low-density populations. This project proposes to initiate a community owned conservation program within the Sangu Wildlife Sanctuary, Bandarban, Bangladesh. The project will focus on mitigating hunting pressures by converting the local Mro huntsmen into tortoise guardians, and providing their communities with alternative self-sustaining income/sustenance sources, such as, goat farming. Tortoise Guardians will be responsible for the monitoring of local turtle and tortoise species. The project will primarily focus on five species: Heosemys depressa-Critically Endangered, Manouria emys- Endangered, Coura mouhotii- Endangered, Indotestudo elongata- Endangered and Pansghura sylhetensis- Endangered. The early success of our pilot study may indicate that it will be viable to form a larger-scale project. This model has a high potential for conserving threatened and endangered Chelonians within the CHT region, and far beyond.
Background and research or conservation rationale:
The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) are an extensive, hilly area as part of an 1800 km mountain range that runs from the eastern Himalayas in China to western Myanmar. The CHT makes up the region of Bangladesh bordering Myanmar on the southeast, and India on the north (Tripura) and east (Mizoram). With an area of 13,295 square kilometers, it comprises approximately 10 percent of the total land area in Bangladesh (Gain 2000). This area falls within the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot and harbors many globally threatened species (Myers et al. 2000). Very little work has been done on the biodiversity of this region, mainly due to remoteness and political instability of the area (Khan 2008). The region is sparsely populated by various ethnic groups of Tibeto-Burmese origin: such as the Chakma, Marma, Tripura and Mro (Lewin 1869). These ethnic people grow rice on the hills under a shifting agriculture system known as jhum. Vegetation is cleared, burned and cultivated for one year before being fallowed for 2-5 years, after which, farming is moved to a new area following the same procedure. Patches of forested area are left untouched in riparian areas to retain water. These patches often serve as suitable habitat for terrestrial turtles and tortoises. Hunting is very common and widespread in the region (Khan 2008). The people here hunt primarily for local consumption to meet their protein needs. Therefore, turtles are opportunistically captured and hunted with the aid of local hunting dogs, and sometimes pitfall traps. Hunting is likely the largest conservation threat for turtles and tortoises within this region. I have been conducting surveys in the Sangu Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS) and adjacent areas in the Bandarban District of the southern CHT for the past three years. In this time, I have identified several localities of the endangered Asian Brown Tortoise (Manouria emys) and Elongated Tortoise (Indotestudo elongata). I have also recorded the occurrence of the critically endangered Arakan Forest Turtle (Heosemys depressa) and endangered Keeled Box Turtle (Cuora mouhoti) for the first time in Bangladesh in 2011 and 2014, respectively (Rahman et al. in preparation). In 2014, I have found a total of one hatchling, one juvenile, two live adults and nine shells of H. depressa in five localities. According to the locals, more than 100 M. emys are harvested from that area every year. Based on interview surveys, I haven not found evidence of commercial turtle harvesting for the pet trade or Chinese medicinal uses in this region. Since hunting appears to be the most immediate threat to turtles here, with no intervention it will likely cause large-scale, local extinctions of these already low-density populations (Klemens and Thorbjarnarson 1995). Due to the remoteness of this area, the Forest Department of Bangladesh exercises little to no jurisdiction or enforcement in the CHT. Therefore, top-down regulation for hunting will have little effect here. Mitigation of turtle hunting in the CHT would require the formation of close relationships with local people such as the Mro, and provide alternative sources of sustenance and livelihood for these people. I have been working very closely with the Mro community near to the Sangu Wildlife Sanctuary on a grassroots level within the Bandarban district from 2011 to the present. In this time, I have gained a thorough knowledge of the social-economic needs of these people. Herein, I propose to initiate a community owned conservation program in the SWS to mitigate hunting pressures by converting the local Mro huntsmen into tortoise guardians and providing their communities with alternative self-sustaining income/sustenance sources, such as goat farming. In return, Tortoise Guardians will be responsible for the monitoring of local turtle and tortoise species. Similar approaches have been proven successful with Egyptian tortoises in Egypt (Attum et al. 2008), lions in Kenya (Hazzah et al. 2014) and hornbills in northeast India (Datta and Rane 2011). This program will serve as a strong conservation model for this region.
- To establish a community owned in-situ conservation program to protect the wild populations of highly threatened turtle and tortoise species.
- To raise awareness on the importance of turtle conservation among local tribal communities.
- To increase our understanding on the ecology of these species.
- To provide local training in conservation research techniques.
- To mitigate hunting pressures by converting the local Mro huntsmen into tortoise guardians and providing their communities with alternative self-sustaining income/sustenance sources.
- To hire local residents to conduct mark-recapture study and field survey to monitor turtle populations.
- Develop an appreciation and sense of investment in Chelonian conservation within the local area.
Study area: Our project site will be within the Sangu Wildlife Sanctuary (21° 26.981’N, 92° 33.398’E), a 2600 hectare mixed-evergreen forest declared as a protected area by the Bangladesh Forest Department in 2010-located 30 km southeast of Alikodom town- and adjacent Mro tribal land, within the Bandarban District of Bangladesh
Figure 1: Map of Our Study Area; The locations on the map where we have found the following species.
Heosemys depressa: 2, 12, 13, 14, 15, 20, 23, 24, 25, 26.
Manouria emys phayrei: 2, 23, 24, 25, 26
Cuoura mouhotii: 12, 13, 14, 20, 23, 24, 25, 26
Pangshura sylhetensis: 23, 24, 25, 26
Indotestudo elongata: Found in all sites.
The upstream of Sangu River (23, 24 25, 26) is probably the most suitable sites for in-site conservation program. Therefore, initially, we will focus in that area.
The program will focus on improving the livelihood of the Mro tribes by providing alternate sources of income and sustenance currently attained from traditional hunting practices. Initially, I will target four localities where there are significant populations of M. emys, H. depressa and C. mouhoti. Four villages will be selected from each of these localities for the Tortoise Guardian Program. A contract will be drafted and signed by the village chiefs within each of these villages. This contract will detail the stipulations of the Tortoise Guardian Program and will be signed in witness by a government elected union member. If the village fails to adhere to the contract guidelines, then it will be pulled from the program. In that event, all aid provided from the project, such as livestock for farming, will be taken away, and the village will be put under a probationary period. After the contract is reviewed and signed, I will select 1-2 individuals from each village to recruit as tortoise guardians. Typically, these members will be either the village chief, or a respected individual of each community. In addition, a Chief Tortoise Guardian will oversee all four villages and keep a steady line of communication with myself on activities, and act as a local coordinator of the program. After immediate selection, tortoise guardians will be brought to Dhaka for a week long intensive training program. This program will focus on goat farming methodologies, turtle monitoring methodologies such as standard mark-recapture techniques (marking and collection of biometric data), and training in the use of project equipment. Once training has been completed, appointed Tortoise Guardians will be responsible for releasing any turtles captured by villagers to the site of capture shortly after individually marking each turtle and collecting morphological data. We plan to use a standard notching method for individual identification and guardians will be provided with a field data collection kit containing: field identification guides, pens, calipers, weighing scales, cameras, gps units, and data collection notebooks.
Activities will be monitored within each village by frequent, unannounced visits by me or my Chief Tortoise Guardian, Parsing Mro, a native of the area whom has been working with me for the last three years and well respected among the Mro communities. Parsing Mro will coordinate work in the field and will receive a monthly stipend. The success of the program will be evaluated by the number of turtles villagers hand in to us. We have been working on a pilot study to determine the feasibility of a larger-scale program. In the pilot, we helped to establish both a chicken farm and a goat farm in two villages. From this pilot, we learned that goat farming using a combination of modern and ingenious farming techniques would be more appropriate for the Mro people due to the remoteness of the area, and inaccessibility to markets to purchase new livestock. Commercial intensive goat farming may not prove to be sustainable there. For each village participating in the program, local goat breeds will be provided to the village, as they have strong resistance to disease, are low maintenance and have very low impact on the environment. In addition, goats will be housed in bamboo enclosures that we will build. The goats will be community owned; by rotation each family will be responsible for feeding, care, and herding of the goats. In return for assisting each village with setting the foundations for sustainable farming, Tortoise Guardians will have two major responsibilities: to obtain any turtles or tortoises captured by village hunters, and to provide education to neighboring villages about the importance of preserving turtles. As a result of our initial pilot study, within just two months, villagers had given us seven I. elongata, four H. depressa and one Cyclemys sp. which their hunters had found on regular trips to the surrounding forest. All of those turtles were released back in the wild. The early success of this pilot study may indicate that it will be viable to form a larger-scale project. I believe this model will have a high potential for conserving threatened and endangered Chelonians within the CHT region, and far beyond.
Long term Vision:
Chittagong Hill Tracts harbors many globally threatened chelonian species. Due to the remoteness of this area, the Forest Department of Bangladesh exercises little to no jurisdiction or enforcement in the CHT. Therefore, top-down regulation for hunting will have little effect here and consequently traditional approach of protected area conservation might not be effective here in this region. Therefore conservation program must directly involve the local indigenous people.
My long term vision is to create a long-term, self sustaining, community owned conservation initiative in CHT region to mitigate hunting and conserve the turtle population by improving the livelihood of the indigenous people. My project partner will be IUCN-Bangladesh and the project will be conducted in collaboration with Forest Department of Bangladesh. I plan to raise additional funds for long term project using year one results as leverage.
These will be the project deliverables from the first year of the study:
Establishment of a primary school for mitigating turtle hunting
- A contract signed by at least four Mro villages to give up turtle consumption and form a network of Tortoise Guardians covering an area of 40 square kilometers.
- Capacity building and training of at least four Mro villagers as tortoise guardians who will act as ambassadors for turtle conservation in the area.
- A website will be launched to disseminate information about the project and social media platforms will be utilized to help spread this information.
- Photo-documentation of the project; to be used on the website and in written reports for documentation purposes.
- Turtle and tortoises captured will be recovered from the villages, identified and released into the wild.
- Baseline data on turtle populations for this region will be collected as a direct result of the program culminating in a report.
- Data will be collected to form a long-term radio telemetry and mark-recapture study on understanding the ecology of these species.
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