From a small village on Indo-Nepal border to a renowned name in the field of freshwater fauna conservation, Dr Shailendra Singh, Associate Director, Aquatic Wildlife program, WCS-India, has surely travelled a long distance. Truly passionate about conservation of magnificent water dwellers, no challenge seems big enough to impede his commitment and love towards these animals.
Shailendra earned his Master’s degree on gharials and a PhD on the Red-crowned roofed turtles. He also spearheaded WCS’s India Turtle Conservation Program and has been instrumental in implementing over 167 conservation, research and education projects across the country. He was the first Indian biologist to receive the Disney Conservation Hero Award in 2008 and is also a vice chair of IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, and IUCN SSC Crocodile Specialist Group among several other International and national conservation committees.
The following are excerpts from a conversation with Shailendra, compiled by Manish Machaiah.
Dr Singh with giant tortoise
- Why did you join the field of conservation?
I grew up in a village near Katerniaghat Sanctuary along Indo-Nepal Border. Watching fish, butterflies and turtles at an early age fuelled my interest in these animals. As a kid, I had two Indian roofed turtles, Tom and Tinky. Although I released them after knowing that keeping turtles as pets is illegal, Tom and Tinky contributed towards my interest in turtles and my desire to study them in their natural habitat. While I got selected as a trainee officer for Border Security Force soon after college degree, I gave that up as I wanted to pursue my passion in conservation.
- How did you develop an interest in freshwater fauna?
Apart from Tom and Tinky stirring up my interest in freshwater fauna, various field visits kept my enthusiasm going. I had a chance to visit Katerniaghat Sanctuary while pursuing my studies and that trip turned out to be the decisive factor.
- What does your current work entail?
I am looking at recovery and conservation of all threatened freshwater turtles and tortoises in India. This includes species like northern river terrapin, red crowned roofed turtle, narrow headed softshell turtle, crowned river turtle, black softshell turtle, Assam roofed turtle, Asian brown tortoise, impressed tortoise, and many more. I am also working on Crocodile Conservation project and Gangetic River Dolphin Rescue project.
- What are the challenges you face while working for turtles?
Illegal turtle trade in India is rampant and this is the biggest challenge that we are facing today. Thousands of turtles are being smuggled regularly and their populations are collapsing. Lack of trained human resources to deal with the issue is yet another challenge.
- Do you see any positive changes, over the years, in the field of conservation?
I was part of the National Turtle Meeting held in 2005 in India and we did bring about some changes and hit a few milestones in the field of turtle conservation. While awareness level regarding conservation, in general, has improved and the governments are channelizing resources towards conservation projects, the pace is very slow. New challenges are cropping up every day and we need to up our game.
Dr Singh with Asian brown tortoise
- What are the major threats to freshwater fauna?
All four major groups of freshwater fauna – turtles, crocodiles, fish and river dolphins – have diverse challenges. Illegal trade, habitat degradation and human conflicts are some of the grave challenges that they face. Freshwater fauna, like dolphins and otters, are facing trouble from hydro projects. Unsustainable fishery practice is yet another menace for these animals.
- How strong are the laws in India when it comes to protecting these species?
Certain species need to be given more protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, though I feel we should focus more on enforcement and trans-boundary issues.
- What are your future plans for turtle conservation?
I am optimistic about recovering all decimated turtle populations and their habitats in India. However, my personal goal is to ensure that at least one population of every species is protected, along with an assurance colony for conservation purposes.
- What do you have to say to young conservationists?
Learn about various dimensions required for conservation, such as socio-political situations, lobbying etc. Diversify your skill sets and never give up. You will notice change and improvement with time. I would also like to add that any step in conservation is not small. Moreover, learning and carrying out conservation work is not one person’s or one organisation’s job. Use new technologies, innovative methods, fresh approach, and document it for future use.