Zoo goes to Hyderabad-based laboratory to DNA-test tortoises
38 star tortoises await rehabilitation, as the Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park initiates special tests to ensure they are sent back into their original habitat after rescue.
The Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park and Research Centre’s administration has come out of its ‘shell’ with a unique decision. In an effort to rehabilitate a highly-endangered species — the beautiful Indian Star Tortoises housed in the Katraj Rescue Centre within the park — the zoo will now subject the specimens to DNA testing at the Hyderabad-based Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES), to determine the exact location of their origin.
The decision has been taken by authorities to ensure that the frequently-smuggled species is rehabilitated into their original habitat after being rescued.
Over the last decade or so, the smuggling of this species has been observed to be on the rise, given that it is not only a popular exotic pet but also a delicacy in some countries Malaysia and Indonesia. It’s occurrence has become so rare in the wild that the Centre is one of the few repositories in the country housing specimens legally.
Park director Suresh Mahadev Jagtap told Mirror, “Star tortoises, endemic to India and Sri Lanka, are classified as a Schedule 1 species under our Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. We have around 38 of them currently housed at our rescue centre. If they are not rehabilitated into their original environment, they might not survive. We have made this decision to ensure their survival.”
Zoo authorities plan on contacting LaCONES, a joint venture of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad, the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, and the Central Zoo Authority. LaCONES has been conducting DNA tests on star tortoises since 2004 to aid the preservation of the species.
Dr Ajay Gaur, senior scientist at LaCONES, said, “The DNA-based identification of these tortoises is important, because if they are not released into the original habitat, they may not survive because of differences in living conditions, like vegetation and temperature. It may also lead to the mixing of genetically distinct populations.”
Through known reference samples of previously rescued tortoises, scientists have been able to establish their varieties. “Within India, there are two types of star tortoise — from the West and the South.
Because of the difference in geographical locations, there are variations in their DNA,” said Gaur, which impacts factors like what temperatures are ideal for their survival, etc.
Jagtap added that most of the tortoises housed at their centre were from cases where the police or Forest Department had seized them from illegal possession in and around Pune.
Local conservation biologist Pooja Bhale said, “Many are not aware that having these tortoises as pets is illegal.
They have very particular breeding patterns, which makes it crucial to know exactly where they come from. It is important that while these tests are being conducted, no harm comes to the animal, and that they are then rehabilitated in a proper manner.”
Wildlife researchers believe the Forest Department must tighten the noose on smugglers of these animals, otherwise initiatives like these will make no difference to their population’s growth.
“The first step is to stop the illegal smuggling. DNA testing is a great move, but only if the rehabilitation is monitored will this step make any actual difference,” said Girish Arjun Punjabi of the Researchers for Wildlife Conservation.
At the same time, the Forest Department claims cases like this are not too frequent in Pune, and that most of these tortoises are seized from coastal areas, despite the fact that they are not a marine species.
“They come from different locations and are perhaps taken to the rescue centre for treatment by animal lovers. The Forest Department has not seen many such cases recently,” said Rajendra Kadam, Deputy Conservator of Forests.
Star tortoises are classified as a Schedule 1 species under our Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. We have around 38 of them currently housed at our rescue centre. If they are not rehabilitated into their original environment, they might not survive .
– Suresh Mahadev Jagtap, Director, Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park and Research Centre
he first step is to stop the illegal smuggling. DNA testing is a good move, but only if rehabilitation is monitored will this step make any actual difference
– Girish Arjun Punjabi, Wildlife researcher