From Ahmedabad Mirror, posted March 16, 2015
Turtle Limited is an attractive proxy of India’s garments sector, one of India’s fastest growing menswear companies built around two iconic brands (Turtle and London Bridge). Over the years, the company recognised that it could either engage in social responsibility initiatives across the social spectrum – healthcare, education, women’s empowerment et al – or it could champion the very species around which its brand was built: turtle.
Turtle Limited selected to champion the cause of turtles for reasons beyond evident partiality. The evidence coming out from the backwaters was that turtles, considered to be one of the oldest creatures, having inhabited the planet for more than 220 million years, were going extinct. This extinction was being driven through a convergence of technology, superstition and increasing affluence. An increasing number of turtles were being commercially exploited to cater to a growing appetite for aphrodisiacs and Chinese medicines.
Turtle Limited could have selected to do two things: engage with erstwhile poachers across the states or engage in initiatives that enhanced the turtle population. The company did both; it played the species regeneration game on the one hand and made poaching less lucrative. The intervention could not have been better timed. Few people recognise the role that turtles play in protecting the natural ecosystem. Turtles are the ecosystem’s ‘garbage cleaners’; they feed on dead and decaying matter, keeping our water bodies from putrefying.
Besides, a study indicated that the gap between the estimated quantum needed to support global conservation and what was actually being allocated annually was a staggering $250 billion. Besides, only a fraction of the government’s allocated wildlife fund was reaching turtle conservation, partly responsible for a sharp reduction in species count. Turtle Ltd committed to turtle conservation in partnership with Turtle Survival Alliance-India (TSA), an agency dedicated to turtle conservation. The TSA worked at the grass-roots through pro-people conservation and research programmes covering 15 critically endangered turtles (among 28 species found in India).
Turtle Ltd supported the TSA India’s five project sites along the Ganga and Brahmaputra basins. For instance, Uttar Pradesh is home to 15 species of freshwater turtles, of which eight are in danger of being obliterated. This Gangetic system has emerged as a turtle poaching hub as poachers comprise marginalised sections compelled to turn to this livelihood in the absence of organised remunerative options. Instead of complaining the problem away – that little could be done to correct things – Turtle began to do something different; on the Ghaghra- Sarju river system, it began to conduct community awareness programs, constructed a community conservation centre, and trained former turtle poachers in alternative livelihoods.
Having addressed the challenging reality of finding productive and legal occupations for erstwhile poachers, Turtle turned its attention to direct species propagation. For instance, in the Ganga, Yamuna and Chambal rivers, Turtle supported a nest protection program where vulnerable river turtle nests were translocated to safe onsite hatcheries until they could hatch and the hatchlings could be returned safely to the river. The importance of this intervention cannot be over-emphasised, as turtle eggs are largely consumed by natural predators and human beings. Turtle went one step ahead. The company helped create conservation centres in UP, MP and Assam where critically endangered species could be preserved as ‘assurance stock’ that would prevent the species from going extinct, their offspring released into the wild to cover the declining number.
In West Bengal, Turtle is engaged in one of its most challenging conservation initiatives. In the Sunderbans, one of the most ecologically rich (and sensitive) regions in the world, the population of the critically endangered northern river terrapin was just about a hundred. While working with the West Bengal forest department, Turtle initiated a breeding program and retrieved the species from extinction, the project now moving into an advanced stage where captive-bred animals will be attached with transmitters and monitored closely after their release into the wild to gain precious information about terrain safety (or poaching) that may encourage more such animals to be released in those pockets.
In Assam, the black softshell turtle (listed as ‘extinct in the wild’ under the International Union for Conservation of Nature Redlist) was restricted to certain temple ponds. Turtle began to work with an extensive temple chain to improve the husbandry situation of adult turtles. It began engage in devotee education in de-littering and the propagation of protection nests. The company’s objective was to use these captive colonies to help the species recover in number before they could be released into the wild. The numbers proved staggering: in just 2014, Turtle reached more than 90,000 local community members and children, protected over 1,000 nests of six species, reared 1,000 hatchlings within its centres, and released over 25,000 hatchlings into rivers. What strikes me as a remarkable is that a number of companies profess a love for the environment. Few actually make a difference.