DR Ambedkar IAS Academy

The habitat of Sal forest tortoise stretches over unprotected areas

Context: The latest study by ecologists in the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, has found that only a small percentage of the habitat of Sal forest tortoise is under protected area network.

Findings of the study:

  • According to the authors of the study published in the journal Herpetological Conservation and Biology, over 90% of the potential distribution of the Sal forest tortoise falls outside the current protected area’s network.
  • The study has also found that 29% of the predicted distribution of the species falls within high occurrence fire zones or areas where there is management burning.
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Concerns raised by the study

  • Vulnerable scenario in North East India:
    • Here the representation of the Sal forest tortoise in protected areas is least.
    • Also there is little to no connectivity among most of the protected areas where the species is present.
  • Habitat in fire-prone zones:
    • These areas include Uttarakhand State which is the “westernmost” distribution limit of the Sal forest tortoise species.
    • Also especially in northeast India, which is a suitable habitat for the species, they experience jhum fire.
      • Jhum is also known as the slash and burn agriculture, which is a method of shifting cultivation.
    • Such occurrences of fire may not only directly kill the animals but also open up habitats, which, in turn, increases the chance of people finding the tortoise easily.
    • These forest fires also disturb soil moisture which may impact the forest floor thus changing the whole community on which the tortoise depends.

About Sal forest tortoise

About: It is also known as the elongated tortoise (Indotestudo elongata)

Habitat: Eastern and northern India and Southeast Asia.

IUCN Conservation Status: Critically Endangered(CrEn) 

Threats: Heavily hunted for food. It is collected both for local use, such as decorative masks, and international wildlife trade.

Way ahead:

  • Effective monitoring:
    • There is currently little information on the population sizes of the sal forest tortoise, or any such species
    • This is mainly because they are so rare, live in remote areas of the forest, and funding opportunities to study them are few.
  • Need of adequate attention towards reptile species
    • There is a need to realize that tortoises are no less threatened than tigers.
    • Thus these species should also be part of regular monitoring efforts like other species.
    • Protected areas are currently designated in a largely mammal-centric way. While many reptiles and amphibians which are equally threatened live outside protected areas where exploitation risk is more.
    • Currently 23 of the 29 species of freshwater turtle and tortoise species found in India come under the threatened category in the IUCN red list and are under severe existential threat due to human activities.
  • Attention towards specific areas:
    • On summer days, these tortoises select moist patches such as dry stream beds. Such areas should be protected from the spread of forest fire.
  • Transboundary conservation efforts:
    • There are many species such as Sal forest tortoises that have very large distribution but it is rare and overexploited throughout its range.
    • On the lines of the following efforts for tigers, similar initiatives can be arranged for these species
      • Tiger Conservation Unit and transboundary conservation reserves such as Manas for the Indo-Bhutan region.
      • The Sundarban for the India-Bangladesh region.
    • Along with the  Sal forest tortoises the critically endangered brackish water turtle (Batagur baska) distributed in India and Bangladesh also needs similar kinds of transboundary support.

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