By Vikram Jit Singh
Whenever researchers and wildlife organisations want to find a lost species, they turn to Rupali Ghosh, 54, an accomplished explorer based in Rajkot, Gujarat. A lady who has worked with King Cobras and crocodiles along with Rom Whitaker and Dipak Mitra in earlier years.
She was asked to locate a lost butterfly, and on her pending search list is a larvae-eating fish, Aphanius Dispar. Rupali has a natural ability to strike a rapport with poachers, trappers, fishing folk, hunters, tribals etc and this helps her to locate and secure rare wild specimens. She has done her bit to conserve the Crown River Turtle, which is sacrificed on Kali Puja, and the Sunderbans River Terrapin in Bangladesh. Muslims do not eat turtles because they cannot carry out the halal.
Bangladeshi conservationists were on the verge of declaring the Sunderbans Terrapin extinct but Rupali teamed up with them in 2008 and led a successful search for wild terrapin hatchlings captured by fishermen and also rescued adults reared for meat by village communities. However, she lost three female terrapins as these were eaten by their owners on auspicious occasions such as shradh. “I was asked by Austrian turtle biologist Dr Peter Praschag to help find this terrapin. I accepted this task as a challenge,” recounts Rupali.
In Bangladesh, Rupali struck a rapport with village ladies. “I started my search from the Tripura-Bangladesh border. I worked my way backwards from fish markets in Dhaka, to middlemen in the terrapin trade, money-lenders and down to remote areas where terrapin trappers operate. A lucky break came my way when I visited turtle trader Suresh Das’ shop and left my handbag containing currency, passport etc. But he rang me back and returned the bag with contents intact. That helped us strike a rapport and he put me on the right track,” says Rupali.
South Bangladesh and Sunderbans area harbour troubled tracts and Rupali was discreet when searching for terrapins. She disconnected her Facebook account to avoid being traced. She also gracefully suffered the assorted teas, milk and other concoctions the humble village folk offer her. “But all the effort, the muddy treks, the hard existence in interior areas, the disappointments after following false leads turn to gold when a magical moment arrives. Such as, when I first set my eyes upon a widow’s pet terrapin,” says Rupali with a contented sigh.
LOVE AT TETHER’S END
An outstanding specimen of the Sunderbans River Terrapin rescued in September 2014, ironically enough, owed its life to a human tragedy. Intrepid wildlife conservationists Rupali Ghosh and Maksudar Rahman were scouring fishing villages of South Bangladesh for this terrapin. The duo got a vague tip-off about a large female terrapin kept as a pet in Chulkuri village of Khulna district. It took them six hours of trudging through slush to reach but it was worth it.The female was there, tethered like a goat in a pond with a rope pierced through the back of her shell.
Though a terrapin’s standard fate would have been to end up in a Bengali gourmet’s pot, this pet’s owner, Shubhashini Mondal (70-75 years old), revealed she had not killed it for 15 years. The terrapin had been brought to the village as a hatchling by her husband Thakur Das Mondal who initially kept the baby in a mud pot before it grew fast as females do and was ready to dwell in a pond. Das died seven years back and Shubhashini did not have the heart to kill and gobble the terrapin, which grew to 18.8 kg. The terrapin was a living memory of Das and the idle widow would do little else but feed and look after the terrapin, which attracted curious viewers from surrounding villages.
Though humans may tie a wild creature in chains and yet manage to love it to bits, the relationship was an engaging one between a widow and a terrapin spinster, who had lived alone all her life in that pond. Shubhashini fed the terrapin Elephant Ear Plant leaves, though the pet was particularly fond of Hibiscus flowers. Another terrapin that Rupali rescued from a different village had been named ‘Dolly’ even though it was a male. Dolly would come out of the pond whenever he was called for and tempted with leaves and flowers.
The most touching scenes—reminiscent of a mother bidding farewell to her daughter’s wedding doli—were witnessed when Rupali was able to persuade Shubhashini to part with her pet. Rupali convinced her on the need for the female terrapin to breed and add to the dwindling genetic pool of the species and promised it would be well looked after in its new home. Though Shubhashini was not willing to part with her pet for any sum of money, her sons, Rui and Prem Das, persuaded their distraught mother after the siblings were secretly offered a handsome amount. Shubhashini wept as the team cut the tether and took the terrapin to Bhawal National Park (BNP). Love and mating finally beckoned the spinster terrapin.
Rupali’s team has established a breeding colony (14 males, seven females) at BNP with collaboration of the Bangladesh Forest department, Turtle Survival Alliance, Vienna Zoo and the IUCN (Bangladesh). Financial support comes from Columbus Zoo and Save Our Species (SOS). Says Rupali: “Though Bangladeshi wildlife laws prohibit private ownership of terrapins, enforcement at grassroots is ineffective. Enforcement can also turn into a law and order or a communal problem when Hindu wildlife officials raid Muslim-dominated villages and vice-versa.”