Some critically endangered turtles and tortoises, including Asian Giant Tortoise, are waiting to be released in forest in the country this year.
On an experimental basis, some baby turtles will be released in forest in 2021, said Shahriar Caesar, a researcher at Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA), an organisation dedicated to ecological conservation.
The CCA had spotted the rare Arakan forest turtle, once thought to be extinct, at Alikadam in Bandarban in 2014 and started the breeding process of this species at the turtle conservation centre in Gazipur. They have three female Arakan turtles and four babies of this species here.
Earlier in 2009, the turtles, which were believed to have gone extinct for close to a century, were rediscovered in a remote forest in Myanmar.
Since the Arakan turtle was spotted for the first time in Bangladesh, the CCA has been working to conserve the near-extinct tortoise and freshwater turtles. At present, they have been working to increase the number of turtles through breeding. Alongside this, they have been working on five more near-extinct species.
According to the CCA, there are 361 species of tortoises and freshwater turtles in the world. There are 25 species of tortoise and freshwater turtles in Bangladesh. Of them, the IUCN has declared 21 tortoises and freshwater turtles, endangered, critically endangered or near-extinct in the world, including Bangladesh.
Trade exploitation, shortage of habitat, destruction of natural forest, burning forest for jhum cultivation or preparing agricultural land are the major threats to these near-extinct species in Bangladesh, researchers have said.
The initiatives of CCA include: Setting up a breeding facility at Gazipur Bhawal National Park with the help of Bangladesh Forest Department. Four critically endangered tortoises and turtles - Arakan forest turtles, Asian Giant Tortoise, Elongated Tortoise, and Keeled Box Turtle - are being bred there.
In the first phase, the organisation took various initiatives, including a community-based awareness campaign through which it made aware locals of 10 remote villages in Alikadam and Thanchi upazila's reserved forests.
In the second phase, the CCA collected 16 of the four species of critically endangered tortoises and turtles and then started the breeding process at the centre in 2017. A favourable atmosphere along with plantation of green grass and different plants was prepared there for these reptiles.
Later, 11 more turtles joined them in 2019 and 12 more in 2020.
Of those, there are 102 babies of Asian Giant Tortoise so far. Elongated Tortoises have laid nine eggs, while Keeled Box Turtles are waiting to lay eggs.
"We got 46 babies of Asian giant tortoises for the first time in 2019," said Shahriar Caesar.
"We will experimentally return some baby turtles to the forest in 2021. We want to return 200 tortoises and turtles to the forest every year. We are working to find which tortoises to be released, where to be released, and in what process, because we need to make sure they survive."
"We are also working on the Arakan forest turtle. Earlier, there was an idea that this species of turtle is available nowhere outside the Arakan state of Myanmar," he said.
Turtles are also breeding outside the Bhawal conservation centre and have already had great success, Caesar added.
Fahim Zaman, project manager of the conservation centre, said the turtles at Bayazid Bostami's shrine in Chattogram are known as Bostami turtles or black soft-shell turtles. A large part of this kind of turtle survives at the shrine.
According to a 2004 study, the number was 408 at that time. Their breeding is not increasing for lack of a safe place for laying eggs and various other problems.
In 2019, the CCA was able to experimentally breed 38 baby turtles from 50 eggs in a room next to the shrine pond. They were able to breed 205 baby turtles in 2020.
"Hopefully, within the next 2/3 years we will be able to release them on a regular basis," he said.
The key difference between tortoises and turtles is that the former spend most of their time on land while the latter are adapted for life spent in water. There are some other differences.