Makhdoompur and turtles

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2018: where saving turtles is an act of faith

October 25, 2018: The Times of India

Reverence Fuels Conservation In UP; 3,000 Saved In 5 Years

Sixty-four-yearold Bheema is a resident of Makhdoompur village on the banks of the Ganga near Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary. He has no illusions about the difficult life his fellow villagers and he have to navigate. But Bheema and others like him found a new outlet for their faith and hopes — saving turtles in the river.

“Our lives go by struggling with problems. At least they should survive,” Bheema says.

While community participation has been the key behind conservation success stories in the country, saving turtles has taken on the form of a religious mission for villagers near Hastinapur. Every season, freshwater hardshell turtles lay eggs along the banks of the river that snakes past 50 of these villages. With the aid of hundreds of farmers like Bheema, more than 3,000 turtles have been saved and released into the Ganga in five years.

Residents of Makhdoompur and other villages lose their crops when the Ganga floods, or are forced out of their homes every year. But turtle conservation has become such a sacred task for them that this season, too, they will comb the riverbanks for eggs to save.

“The Ganga is our mother; these turtles clean the river. Eventually our mortal remains will be assimilated here. By saving the turtles, we are saving our goddess,” said Pritam Kumar, also from Makhdoompur.

This mix of faith and conservation was not always there. In 2012, a young environmentalist named Sanjeev Yadav, working with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), wanted to revive the dwindling turtle population in the san c tu ary, which covers 2,074 sq km across five districts of UP. But it was impossible without the villagers’ help. The eggs were getting destroyed by wild animals or under farming implements.

“I faced a lot of resistance among villagers at first. For them, mere survival was a priority. Caring about turtles did not come easily,” said Yadav, who then tried a different approach.

“Despite the havoc during monsoons, the Ganga is revered by villagers. I tackled conservation through this deep religious belief system, pointing out how turtles helped clean the river,” Yadav said.

Villagers used to find hundreds of eggs while tilling the soil, but would throw them away. “There are some communities that eat the eggs. So, the survival rate used to be very low. Things are different now,” Kumar said.

Farmers help Yadav set up and maintain hatcheries where baby turtles can grow before moving to the river.

Lives have changed in other ways in the process. “I used to do illegal fishing in the sanctuary earlier and opposed conservation. But now I might be one of the biggest contributor of eggs in the programme. I have left fishing and just serve Mother Ganga. Perhaps through this we will be able to reverse our fortunes with the blessings of the goddess,” said Bheema.

Once laying season begins in late November, villagers inform the WWF team and help transport eggs to hatcheries. Eggs are guarded till they hatch in April, a process that continues till June. The hatchlings are moved to a nursery in the forest department office premises 10km away from the river in Hastinapur. In November-December, turtles are released by villagers and their children.

“We had never seen anything like it before. Now we keep looking for eggs,” said 9-year-old Arjun. The “sacred task” clearly is being handed over to the next generation.

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