For two years, hundreds of turtles at Varanasi breeding centre are surviving without funds

All five species of turtles are protected under India’s wildlife laws. Photo by Pawar Pooja/Wikimedia Commons.

  • The turtle breeding centre at Sarnath in Varanasi has not received funds for the last two years, leaving staff with the responsibility to borrow resources to keep the turtles alive.
  • As per officials, the situation has arisen because of a decision to move the Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary (TWS) from Varanasi to the Bhadohi-Allahabad-Mirzapur region without any clarity on whether the breeding centre will also move.
  • While the turtle sanctuary is being relocated citing human activities there is speculation that the upcoming inland waterways are one of the reasons for moving the sanctuary.

As many as 900 turtles at India’s first turtle breeding centre are surviving on borrowed resources. The government’s failure to release funds since the last two years has forced the centre’s management to borrow funds to meet the basic needs, including the daily feed of the turtles that are being bred at the centre. The breeding center is located in Sarnath in Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh and was set up in 1989. No government fund has come its way since the year 2020.

According to officials, this delay in funds is happening because of confusion following a government order. In 2019, the state government took a decision to move the Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary out of Varanasi, after more than three decades of its existence. However, there was no clarity on whether, along with the sanctuary, the turtle breeding center will also be shifted or will remain at its original place in Varanasi.

Talking to Mongabay-Hindi, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Kashi Wildlife Division, Dinesh Kumar Singh, said, “Due to the relocation of turtle sanctuary from Varanasi to Mirzapur, there was confusion in the department, due to which funds (for the breeding centre) were not released in 2020. But now it has been made clear that even though the sanctuary has been shifted, the turtle breeding centre at Sarnath will remain at its original location.”

Confirming this, DFO, Social Forestry, Forest Division, Varanasi, Mahaveer Kaujalgi, said that since all the arrangements for breeding turtles are already in place, there’s no plan to relocate it (at the breeding centre).

Talking about the paucity of funds, Dinesh Kumar Singh said, “The issue of non-availability of funds was raised during a departmental meeting. But due to a confusion, the budget has not been released so far. The allocated funds could not be released due to imposition of the model code of conduct during the UP elections. As soon as the file sectioning process starts, the funds for the turtle breeding center are also likely to be released.”

Over the last two years, the situation has reached a point where the staff is left with no option but to borrow resources to feed these turtles. At present, there are 909 turtles of Batagur dhongoka species (three-striped roofed turtle) at the centre. Of these, 712 are young ones and 197 are adults.

According to forest guard Nishikant Sonkar, arrangements have to be made for turtle fodder (which includes gourd, carrot, radish, apple, cucumber, cucumber, calcium etc.). “Around 600-700 rupees are spent daily on the turtle feed,” he said.

The center has 909 turtles of Batagur dhongoka species. Of these, 712 are young ones and 197 are adults. Photo by Chandan Pandey.

While the centre has an annual budget of about Rs. five lakh (Rs. 500,000), the unavailability of funds since the last two years has forced the staff to fend for the turtles.

The Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary (TWS) was established in Varanasi district in 1989 under the Ganga Action Plan. Built in a radius of about seven kilometers from Malviya Bridge Rajghat to Ramnagar Fort in Varanasi, TWS was touted as the first freshwater turtle wildlife sanctuary in the country.

As part of its conservation efforts, turtle hatchlings are reared at the breeding center in Sarnath and subsequently released into the Ganges river once they become mature enough to survive in their natural habitat. According to the local officials, about 2,000 turtle eggs are brought to the centre from the Chambal and Yamuna rivers every year. However, just about half of these eggs end up hatching. Typically, the young turtles are taken care of for a year at the centre and are then released into the Ganges.

In 2019, an in-principle decision was taken to move the turtle sanctuary from Varanasi to the Bhadohi-Allahabad-Mirzapur region. The decision led to unnecessary confusion among the authorities, putting a complete break on the release of funds for the breeding centre.

Why is the turtle sanctuary moving?

Among the many reasons being cited by the government order, behind the relocation of the wildlife sanctuary to the Bhadohi-Allahabad-Mirzapur region, is human activities.

Data suggests that about 40,000 turtles were released into the Ganges over the last three decades. However, in 2018, only 11 turtles were confirmed in the census conducted by the Forest Department of Varanasi. A source associated with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) said, “The Institute had conducted the Rapid Ecological Survey of Ganga at the behest of the Government of India. The decision to de-notify the Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary was taken after finding negligible number of turtles in Varanasi.” The same justification was also given by the government when it decided to move the turtles away from their 30-year-old habitat in the Sanctuary.

However, there is conjecture that the decision to move the sanctuary was to facilitate the central government’s ambitious inland waterways project that aims to make Varanasi one of the major hubs for cargo transportation along the river Ganges.

Arvind Kumar, Assistant General Manager, Varanasi, Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), told Mongabay-Hindi, “Human disruption was anticipated when the IWAI project came to Varanasi. Also, due to the construction of the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor, there was a strong possibility of human disturbance in the Ganges. Given these factors, when the government survey reflected a low turtle count in Varanasi, an area of 30 km between Mirzapur, Allahabad and Bhadohi was notified as (the new) turtle sanctuary, after denotifying the sanctuary in Varanasi.”

National Waterway-1 runs through Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh to Haldia in West Bengal with a length of 1,620 km. Apart from Varanasi, multi-modal river water terminals have also been built at Sahibganj and Haldia where big ships anchor. Interestingly, the port in Varanasi near Ramnagar is barely 2.3 kilometers away from the Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary.

A draft report on the assessment of the impact of multi-modal transport on the environment was brought out, where several stakeholders were consulted. Objecting to the waterways, Ajay Rai, former DFO of Kashi Van Mandal Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary, had raised five concerns.  He noted that regular shipping operations will adversely impact the turtles, the noise from water transport will affect the turtles, the silt that builds up during construction will cause problems for aquatic animals, the possibility of oil seepage from the ships will contaminate the water in the river Ganga and the management of solid waste should be done in a scientific manner.

B.D. Tripathi, President and Professor of Mahamana Malviya Ganga Research Center of Banaras Hindu University, told Mongabay-India, “The location of the Turtle Sanctuary in Varanasi was not good and turtles were not able to survive here due to human interference. Besides this, sand deposits on the right side of the Ganges were increasing rapidly, forming sand dunes everywhere. All this resulted in an increase in the pressure of river current on the ghats. Due to an increase in soil erosion, the Turtle Sanctuary was denotified from here and moved to the Prayagraj, Mirzapur and Bhadohi region.”

In view of these objections, efforts were also made to reduce the negative impacts of the waterways. The environmental impact assessment reports prepared for National Waterway-1 has directed that in order to save the flora and fauna of the Ganges from the impact of the project, only one or two ships will pass through the Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary every hour. The ships need to run at a speed of five kilometers per hour. The report said that 110-140 decibels (dB) of noise would be generated at this speed. The report further stated that the noise level for change in behaviour of turtles is 150 dB, which is higher than the noise generated by ships. Therefore, the effect on the behavioural responses of turtles is estimated to be negligible, it noted.

Changing environment conditions forced turtles to move away from their natural habitat

Researcher Gaura Chandra Das of Wildlife Institute of India explained, “In the year 2018, the Wildlife Institute of India had counted turtles for about a month in a total radius of 7 km from Rajghat in Varanasi to Ramnagar. During the census, only 11 turtles were found. In comparison, more turtles were found in the surrounding areas. These areas include Chandravati, Dhakwa, Sarsol and Sujabad. He said that along with turtles, different species of fish, dolphins, otters and migratory birds also easily survive in the turtle sanctuary.

Thirteen species of turtles are found in the Ganges. Of these 10 are endangered and three are on the verge of extinction. Photo by Chandan Pandey.

Das agreed that human disturbance in Varanasi’s Turtle Sanctuary and the vibration and sound generated by shipping activity are major reasons for the turtles to move away from their habitat. He explained that sound is heard with 10 times more intensity in water than in air. Being peace-loving, turtles prefer to leave such areas.

Another researcher associated with the Wildlife Institute of India, Ashok Panda, said that in the last 30 years, more than 40,000 turtles had been released into the Ganges. He said that the turtle population in the Ganges has been showing a declining trend. The main cause of habitat degradation are sand mining and river farming. Due to this, the turtles do not get a suitable place to sunbathe and lay eggs. Apart from this, water pollution and construction of dams on rivers also cause disturbance for the turtles.

Trafficking and bycatch reduce egg count

According to Panda, a total of 13 types of turtles are found in the Ganges. Of these, 10 species are endangered, while three are on the verge of extinction. Ten out of these 13 species of turtles are included under the Indian Wildlife Act 1972 Schedule I, which covers endangered species that are granted protection from poaching, killing, trading etc. A person is liable to the harshest penalties for violation of the law under this Schedule.

The sharp decline in the number of turtles due to human disturbance in all rivers across India has also led to shrinking egg count. Turtles getting caught in fishnets, especially those that survive on fish, is another reason for the population fall.

Additionally, turtles are also smuggled from north India and sent to other parts of India and other Asian countries.

In the last nine years alone, the Varanasi police has seized more than 7,000 turtles being trafficked. Forest guard Nishikant Sonkar pointed out, “From time to time, turtles are confiscated by the police and handed over to us. The forest department, after treating them, releases them into the Ganges with permission.” Sonkar said that the data pertaining to the number of turtles handed over to the Turtle Breeding Center by the police over the years is also available here.


Banner photo: The turtle breeding programme suffered in Varanasi in the last few years due to confusion among authorities. Photo by Pawar Pooja/Wikimedia Commons.

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