Northeast zoos protect Asian brown tortoise

Asian Brown Tortoise in Nagaland zoo, Dimapur. Photo credit: Turtle Survival Alliance-India.

Zoos in Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur have provided succor to Indian conservationists' efforts for captive breeding and survival of Asian brown tortoise, a critically endangered species which is endemic to southeast Asian countries.

The species is known to be the largest tortoise in mainland Asia and is believed to be among the most primitive of living tortoises.

At least 78 brown tortoises - 10 in 2018 and 68 in 2019 - have been successfully bred in Nagaland Zoological Park, Dimapur as part of a captive breeding project of Turtle Survival Alliance India (TSA) with the support of Wildlife Conservation Trust and Wildlife Conservation Society, India. 

Captive breeding of the tortoise species was also done in Manipur and Mizoram zoos earlier by the state forest departments and other agencies but this is the first time conservation breeding has been tried in the Nagaland zoo. 

Obed Swu, officer-in-charge of Nagaland Zoo, said that the project team developed a specialised nursery following a capacity building and training workshop, aimed at to increase the survival of juveniles through the winters, which is very critical.

"This breeding success has not only brought us hope but has allowed us to learn more insight into replicating this program in other zoos in North-east India. The project team simultaneously carried out the reconnaissance survey of historic habitats of Manouria emys in the state of Nagaland. Till date, we have delineated two potential reintroduction sites - Intanki National Park in Peren district and Niuland community forest area in Dimapur district," director of TSA-India, Shailendra Singh told DH on Saturday.

The Asian Brown Tortoise is found in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam within the tropical, temperate and moist forest habitats in Southeast Asia. They are herbivores, preferring a diet of grasses, vegetables, leaves, and fruits.

The M. emys thus helps in clearing the forest floor and helps disburse fruit seeds through its feces. "But, the species current population is rapidly declining in many parts of its range, which has brought it to Critically Endangered category as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Deforestation, forest fire, hunting by locals and poaching for the pet trade are some of the main factors that are affecting the decline in their population," Singh said.

Singh said that out of 15 zoos and regional parks in the Northeast, only six (Guwahati, Diphu), Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland have brown tortoise collection through rescue and voluntary donations from some wildlife enthusiasts. However, these zoos still need some specific training with housing and husbandry of turtles.