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World Turtle Day: Conserving the Asian giant tortoise

  • Published at 07:38 pm May 22nd, 2018
  • Last updated at 07:25 am May 23rd, 2018
Parabiologists, equipped with GPS, cameras and field notebooks, release an endangered  tortoise back in the wild at the CHTCreative Conservation Alliance
Creative Conservation Alliance

To help conserve the Asian giant tortoise, CCA set up a captive breeding centre at Bhawal National Park in Gazipur last year, from where the hatchlings of the tortoise will be later released in the wild.

A Bangladeshi conservation biologist is dedicating his life to conserving the wildlife of the country’s “other” natural wonder after chancing upon a species that his peers had assumed to be extinct.

Shahriar Caesar Rahman’s accidental rediscovery of the Asian giant tortoise or Arakan forest turtle in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) took the science world – and him – by surprise.

“When we think of wildlife we usually think of the Sundarbans but the CHT is a tropical rainforest rich in biodiversity,” the 31-year-old said.

A specialist in reptiles, Shahriar had begun an independent project in 2011 to conserve the Burmese python in the CHT.

While conducting his survey, however, the young biologist and his team made several unexpected discoveries in the remote and relatively unexplored territory. 

“We have so far found 30 globally threatened species in the area, including several snake and turtle species, Gaur (wild cattle species), clouded leopard and marble cat.

“It is then when we found the population of the Asian giant tortoise, which was previously believed to be extinct.” 

The Asian giant tortoise or Arakan forest turtle | Nature Stills

Realizing the need to better organize their conservation efforts around a common platform, Shahriar co-founded the Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA) in 2016. 

“We are a group of young biologists who also have the guidance of more experienced seniors in the field, for example retired government officials who advise us in every step of the way,” Shahriar said. 

“Our primary goal is to conserve the ecological and cultural diversity of the last remaining wild places of Bangladesh.”

To help conserve the Asian giant tortoise, CCA set up a captive breeding centre at Bhawal National Park in Gazipur last year, from where the hatchlings of the tortoise will be later released in the wild.

Of the 20 people working on the project currently, five or six are based in Dhaka while the rest consists of local parabiologists and field assistants. 

“We obviously need more people involved (but) to say how many people are required to carry out the work is difficult,” Shahriar said.Shahriar Caesar Rahman, co-founder of the Creative Conservation Alliance, is working to preserve Asia’s largest tortoise in a remote corner of Bangladesh | Nature Stills

Local knowledge 

Shahriar’s team has taken a holistic approach, enlisting local people into the conservation effort. 

“Instead of just thinking or focusing on the species level, we are taking a holistic approach and involving the local people as we believe everything is connected in nature so we could not leave the people of the area out of the picture,” he said.

“We trained and familiarized them with research equipment. They are now the ambassadors of conservation – what we call parabiologists – who work with us to gather information.”

Many of the species they found, such as the Asian giant tortoise, are critically endangered due to the destruction of forests or hunting – which is another reason why they involved the locals to reduce hunting and help deter poachers.

“We believe if insiders are involved, the work can create more impact because they know the ecological, cultural and political climate of the place like the back of their hands,” Shahriar said.

Supporting livelihoods

With the locals on board, Shahriar’s team is also working to establish community conserved areas of forests. 

“Every village has a specific forest that connects nature with people, so to motivate the villagers, we are working on water conservation,” he said. 

Also Read - Asia’s largest tortoise wins the race with Whitley Award

The project is also creating sustainable income sources for the locals by marketing their handicrafts through a partnership with Bcraft - a Dhaka-based social enterprise which allows communities under threat to access the global market through their products. 

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