Asian Giant Tortoises Rewilded to a Protected Forest in Nagaland, India
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA — Turtle Survival Alliance, Nagaland Forest Department, and Wildlife Conservation Society India today announced the rewilding of ten captive-bred juvenile Asian Giant Tortoises (Manouria emys phayrei) into a protected forest in Nagaland, Northeast India. This first monitored rewilding of the Critically Endangered tortoise in India comes after more than five years of conservation breeding efforts at Nagaland Zoological Park, Dimapur.
“Nagaland is rich in its biodiversity, many species of which are Critically Endangered. These include such well-known megafauna as elephants, rhinoceroses, and tigers. As Asia’s largest tortoise, the Asian Giant Tortoise should be considered among Nagaland’s important megafauna and warrants the same level of conservation actions for their recovery in the wild. Yesterday’s release marks a momentous step toward that recovery,” said Andrew Walde, Director of Field Conservation, Turtle Survival Alliance.
In December 2021, Turtle Survival Alliance and Creative Conservation Alliance released ten captive-bred Asian Giant Tortoises into the Matamuhuri valley of the Chattogram Hill Tracts, Bangladesh. Yesterday’s release event in India, together with that in Bangladesh in 2021, will provide necessary scientific information to further develop our collaborative long-term monitoring and release strategy for Asian Giant Tortoise population supplementation throughout their historic range in South and Southeast Asia.
“Having developed with regional partners successful conservation breeding programs across the Asian Giant Tortoise’s native range in India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, the release of these ten tortoises is the first step in understanding the complexities associated with population replenishment,” said Dr. Shailendra Singh, Principle Investigator of the joint Asian Giant Tortoise Recovery Project. “I commend the Nagaland Forest Department, Nagaland Zoological Park, and the Zeliang community of Peren District on this historic occasion.”
A long history of over-exploitation and a general lack of awareness leading to unsustainable use for consumption by local communities have brought the species to the brink of functional extinction in the wild. These pervasive threats warrant rigorous conservation interventions.
“Nagaland Forest Department, with our partner organization, is engaged in a long-term commitment to restore an ecologically viable population of Asian Giant Tortoise in the state,” said Mr. Ved Pal Singh, Chief Wildlife Warden, Nagaland. “This pilot release is a major leap towards realizing our common conservation goals.”
To replenish wild Asian Giant Tortoise populations in Northeast India, Turtle Survival Alliance and our partners in the late 2010s conducted surveys of regional zoos in Northeast India to initiate cooperative conservation breeding programs. First steps were made toward that effort in 2017 through the realization of a joint program between Nagaland Zoological Park and Turtle Survival Alliance.
“Today, Nagaland Zoological Park has the highest number of Asian Giant Tortoise population in India, holding over 110 juveniles and 13 founder adults,” said Dr. C. Zupeni Tsanglai, Director, Nagaland Zoological Park.
Rewilding the Asian Giant Tortoise to habitats deemed the most suitable for achieving reintroduction success of captive-reared tortoises in Northeast India will be conducted in multiple phases. Precursory actions to these rewilding phases include: the tracing of recent Asian Giant Tortoise donations to northeast Indian zoos, the surveying of historic habitats, and the receipt of field evidence of native tortoise populations. This December’s release represents the first major phase toward tortoise rewilding.
“Animals will be soft-released—or moved to a large natural enclosure with native habitat—for acclimation through the winter, and allowed to disperse into the forests at the onset of monsoon, followed by active tracking by a joint project team,” said Mr. T. Aochuba, Director Intanki National Park.
Soft release is gradual return of captive-raised animals to the wild. The goal is to generate site fidelity in the released individuals whereby they develop a tendency to remain in the vicinity of the soft release enclosure; this has proved to be an effective strategy with other species of tortoises and serves to “anchor them” to that site.
Foremost to the Asian Giant Tortoise Population Recovery Program, Turtle Survival Alliance and our partners engage local target communities residing in conservation priority areas through awareness program and community involvement. The release sites we identify are inhabited by ethnic tribes who have age-old traditions of protecting their local habitats as Indigenous Community Conserved Areas. The goals of our community engagement there are the sensitization against hunting of released animals and the strengthening of protective actions for critical habitats. These measures reinforce participatory conservation and further promote environmental stewardship.
We thank Mr. Ved Pal Singh (CWLW, Nagaland), Mr. T. Aochuba (Director, Intanki National Park), Dr. C. Zupeni Tsanglai (Director, Nagaland Zoological Park), Dr. Prabhat Kumar (Former Director, NZP), Dr. Michael Imti Imchen (Vet NZP), Dr. Michael (Vet NZP) and Dr. Himanshu Joshi (WCT) all staff of NFD and India Turtle Conservation Program. We thank Rick Hudson, President, Turtle Survival Alliance, and Mr. Nathan Haislip for technical input.
We would like to acknowledge the support of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Government of India, Nagaland Forest Department, People’s Trust for Endangered Species, Turtle Limited, The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Turtle Conservation Fund, Vicky Hudson Memorial AGT Fund, Chelonian Advisory Group, and the Rufford Foundation and Wildlife Conservation Trust for their financial support of this initiative through their small grant programs.
Conservation breeding and release team members include: Dr. Shailendra Singh, Dr. C. Zupeni Tsanglai, Ms. Sushmita Kar, Ms. Watisungla Amer, Ms. Sreeparna Dutta, Dr. Parimal Ray, and field assistants Mr. Ika Chishi, Mr. Bhushan Lam, and Mr. Lalit Mohan Budhani.