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red-crowned roof turtles

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Turtle Conservation in India: Making Progress

Brian photographs the placing of the education center's corner stone. The ceremony includes burning incense and giving candied buffalo-milk sweets to the Hindu gods.

Brian photographs the placing of the education center

A colleague of mine recently told me that my turtle conservation projects in Asia, specifically India, have little chance of long-term success and that they were foolishly impractical. That is, they believe that no matter how much my team achieves in the next few years, the turtles I try so hard to protect will eventually go extinct due to human actions. Their statement left me dumbfounded. I fear that my colleague has regressed to the mindset of a disheartened conservationist.

As conservationists, we often tell the tale of horrible environmental woes (for example, continuing deforestation of tropical rain forests, the cruelties of illegal wildlife trade, and feasible catastrophic climate changes) as a call to action, and perhaps if we are lucky, a bit of fund-raising as well. However, all too often we overly focus this message on the negative and fail to highlight the gains (both small and monumental) we have recently achieved in our struggles against the loss of biodiversity. This negativity has left many people greatly fatigued and despondent. So much so that many are “throwing in the towel” and are now glumly resigned to the misperception that our conservation efforts are merely postponing the inevitable mass extinction of countless plant and animal species.

I find this phenomenon eerily similar to a combination or, perhaps more aptly termed fusion, of two classic children’s stories: The Boy Who Cried Wolf and Chicken Little. We as conservationists have to be weary of continually “crying wolf” to the point that our message falls onto deaf ears. We also must be aware of how overly pessimistic claims that the “sky is falling” adversely influences the psyche of the general public.

Call me young and naïve, but I still think we can make a difference and that small actions today can have long-term positive conservation impacts.

I, as well as others, have worked hard over the past three years to develop numerous collaborations that will ensure continued project funding for the conservation of the red-crowned roof turtles in India well into the future. Nevertheless, the true measure of this project’s success will not only be self-sustaining populations of turtles within protected areas but also the legacy of the project’s capacity building. The project is currently funding the dissertation research of three Indian graduate students. Their projects range from turtle spatial ecology (the study of how the animals move within their habitats) to socio-economic surveys of the area’s impoverished people, who are dependent on utilizing natural resources in a manner that may be negatively impacting turtle populations.

The new education center becomes a reality.

The new education center becomes a reality.

In addition, we have recently broken ground on our new education center adjacent to our turtle nurseries. This education center, besides offering programs to thousands of young students, will serve as a center for training forest rangers in new techniques to protect and monitor wildlife more effectively. Furthermore, we are developing novel alternative livelihood options for reformed turtle poachers. By offering these poachers a legal and stable means of financially providing for their families, we are giving the red-crowned roof turtles the best opportunities for generations to come.

The combination of both the adolescent and the adult education programs ensures both short-term and long-term project success. I am confident that the red-crowned roof turtle conservation project is, and will continue to shape, the future of turtle conservation positively for years to come, and I hope that my colleagues will find inspiration and optimism in this project.

Brian Horne is a postdoctoral fellow for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

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Field Adventures in India

Gharial

Gharial

I am preparing myself for another adventure in India: two months of fieldwork along one of India’s greatest biodiverse rivers, the Chambal. Each of my trips to India over the past four years has been incredibly different from one another, so I have no way to guess what this trip will have in store for me.

During my first trips, I felt like a whirling dervish among the bustling trains and masses of humanity as I made my way from one metropolis to another. My later trips have found me setting up residence in a small rural village on the banks of the Chambal River, with blast furnace hot days and nights when I felt as if I was sleeping in a walk-in beer cooler.

take a look at thits!

This is my host family's house and where we slept when it wasn't raining. When it rained we moved into the shed with the water buffalo.

Village life is good, although the children are still scared that I am secretly a medical doctor whose role it is to give vaccination injections when they least expect it. I have grown used to sleeping on a traditional short wooden cot with my feet propped on a plastic lawn chair next to my host family’s water buffalo. And, in turn, I think the buffalo has taken a liking to me (I sneak Loraine, as I affectionately call her, treats when no one is looking). However, I struggle with bathing at the communal well; I just am too bashful to be seen in my skivvies in front of the entire village! So, I wait until the sun has set and no leering eyes are present to have my “bucket shower.” This also saves me from becoming a lobster, as my fair Irish skin burns incredibly easily.

yummy

This is a typical large mid-day meal served on metal plates. The plates have edges, as food is eaten with your hands and you need the edges so your food doesn't end up in your lap while you're trying to scoop it up!

My U.S. friends often ask me how I like food while I am away for months on end. I explain to them that Indian food in India is often not like the foods you see in restaurants stateside. There is the typical nan or roti (flat bread) accompanied by lentils and rice, but I do not eat tikka malsala (my personal favorite) for every meal. For breakfast, I really like the fresh yogurt made from buffalo milk, and spicy samosas make a great between-meal treat.

I will be leaving in a few short weeks with my bags stuffed with field gear and plenty of sun block, resting assured that this trip will truly be a new adventure.

Brian Horne, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow for San Diego Zoo Conservation Research. He is working to help endangered red-crowned roof turtles and gharials in India.

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