It may have won the race in one of Aesop’s Fables, but the turtle is all set to lose the race in Varanasi, the Lok Sabha constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The 7-km-long Kachua (Turtle) Wildlife Sanctuary (TWS) in River Ganga, between Rajghat and Ramnagar in Varanasi, would be off the conservation map of the country in the next few months. Local wildlife officials have cited the sanctuary as a “threat” to the famous ghats on the bank of the Ganga and say that the sanctuary has failed to fulfil its objectives. The officials said that no mining or dredging could be undertaken in the river owing to the presence of the sanctuary as a result of which the ghats get submerged in the flood seasons.
Sources, however, said that the sanctuary is an obstacle in the Modi government’s ambitious Haldia-Varanasi Inland Waterways Project along the Ganga. The project requires dredging of the river, which can not be done as long as the sanctuary exists.
The turtles would be relocated to another place in the Ganga between Allahabad and Mirzapur districts. “We have already identified the place, where the turtles will be relocated. It’s a 30 km stretch on the river between Allahabad and Mirzapur,’’ said Manoj Khare, divisional forest officer, wildlife, Varanasi division.
Speaking to DH, Khare said that local authorities had sent the proposal to the State Wildlife Advisory Board to denotify the sanctuary. “The matter will be placed before the state cabinet after getting approval from the Board,’’ he said.
Former principal chief conservator of forests, Mohammad Ahsan, however, says that there is no such thing as ‘relocation’ of a sanctuary. “A sanctuary can not be shifted. The remarks are only for public consumption,” he said.
The sanctuary was formed in 1989 for the purpose of checking biological pollution in River Ganga. Around 2,000 turtles are released into the river annually. Plying of motor boats and sand mining in the protected zone of the sanctuary is prohibited, as turtles lay eggs in the sand of the riverbanks.
In the sanctuary, Nilssonia gangetica, Lissemys punctata, Chitra indica (soft-shelled turtles) which are carnivorous and hard shelled herbivorous turtles such as Geoclemys hamiltonii, Pangshura tentoria, Batagur dhongoka are in abundance.
According to sources, efforts are on to get the sanctuary denotified for the past three years and the process was fast-tracked after the formation of BJP government in March last year. The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) carried out a rapid assessment study on ‘Assessment of Wildlife Values of the Ganga River from Bijnor to Ballia including Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary’ in July to “evaluate its efficacy as a protected area and to identify areas for effective biodiversity conservation.”
“Although declared as a protected area, increase in riverbank agriculture, river traffic, water pollution through sewage and solid waste are posing a threat to the biodiversity of TWS and the river’s riparian habitat. High human disturbance in the form of cultural-religious activities are influencing the biological values of the TWS,” the study said.
While the government is relying on the study conducted by WII to buttress its contention that the sanctuary is of little value, a section of the experts not only contest the claims but also term its proposed denotification as politically motivated.
The study also mentioned that of the 13 species of turtles found in the river, only five were encountered during field sampling. The study virtually sounded the death knell for the sanctuary by observing that in spite of the protected status, the sanctuary scored low due to its small size and high human disturbance. Ahsan, however, said that no proper study had been undertaken. “No reliable data is available on whether the sanctuary was able to serve its purpose and hence it is improper to raise questions over its utility.”
Incidentally, one of the objectives of declaring this area as a sanctuary was to conserve the Nilssonia gangetica, a carnivorous turtle abundant in this region, which helped in scavenging half burnt corpses dumped in this section of the river and eventually aided in cleaning the river and improve water quality.
Interestingly, the officials remained tight-lipped on continued dumping of half burnt bodies in the river and on the question that won’t the removal of the sanctuary hamper efforts to rid the river of pollutants as carnivorous turtles were released into the water to scavenge the partially burnt bodies. “There is no way we can stop dumping of half burnt bodies in the river. It is part of the Hindu rituals performed during the cremation,’’ said a BJP leader, who is closely associated with Ganga cleaning projects in Varanasi.
The removal of the sanctuary seems contrary to the objectives of Namami Gange project, which aims to protect and conserve the river’s biodiversity.