As a young biologist, B.C. Choudhury was part of a turtle monitoring unit organised by Robert Bustard to count olive ridley turtles during an arribada. This was an experience that led him to pursue a career on crocodiles rather than turtles, because he wanted to travel and thought at that time that working with turtles would not allow him to do so. After many years of working with crocodiles, he started supervising major projects on freshwater turtles, herpetofauna, cranes and coral reefs after joining the newly formed Wildlife Institute of India in the early 1980s. Through his student, Bivash Pandav, he got involved in sea turtles again, which led to the discovery of the rookery in Rushikulya. In 1999, B.C Choudhury coordinated a national project on sea turtle conservation funded by UNDP, which led to several publications for research and conservation including an edited volume, ‘Marine Turtles of the Indian Subcontinent’, co-edited by Kartik Shanker.
He made many contributions to conservation policy in India and was involved with the first drafting of the CMS-UNEP Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the conservation and management of sea turtles in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia (IOSEA).
KS: As you know, I’ve been working on a book on the history of sea turtle conservation in India. I’ve heard many stories from you when you were my postdoc advisor, and of course since then as well. You were kind of there at beginning of the sea turtle research programme in Odisha, weren’t you? Tell us how it all started.
BC: It was Bob Bustard who first made the state or the federal government realize why Gahirmatha was so important. But he was told about this by JC Daniel, the Director of BNHS.
KS: Was there a manuscript or report somewhere that you are aware of or was it just anecdotal that they had reported it?
BC: At that point in time, post the initiation of Project Tiger, the Government of India was looking for species focussed projects, and the FAO wanted the crocodile-farming programme to be initiated. That’s how they called Robert Bustard. Bob had always been interested in marine turtles and before coming to Bhitarkanika, he had met Rom [Whitaker] and Daniel. Daniel knew Bob’s background and had done surveys in Bhitarkanika for birds and in Gahirmatha for turtles – he was the one who told Bob about the marine turtles in that area.
He heard about the huge number of turtles being traded and also saw large number of eggs being sold officially with licenses from the Forest Department. At that time, the eggs were being sold by the boatload and not counted. But when the intensity of nesting and the numbers was talked about, that’s when Bob suggested that we start a turtle project. So, he got B.C. Kanungo to draft a proposal and that became the Integrated Sea Turtle Project for Orissa. That was the beginning of the official turtle business in Orissa at the end of 1974.
I got involved with turtles because I was asked to visit as a possible candidate for crocodile work. At that point of time, I was working in the media. After my post-graduation, I did a journalism degree in Berhampur and had no inclination to work on wildlife. But the post-graduation was in Zoology with Environmental Science as a special subject area. I remember I wrote an essay on what a zoologist can do for conservation and I remember writing extensively about the IUCN. That was triggered by Mrs Gandhi’s Stockholm address. The other story which influenced me at that time was a story in The Statesmen on Billy Arjan Singh, ‘Tiger Heaven’. I had worked for several newspapers by then and thought, “This is not the job I should be doing.”
Then, I saw an advertisement for a position on the crocodile project and I applied for it. Seven of us were asked to come. I looked through the window and saw a white-skinned man and changed from my formal dress to jeans to look a bit wild. I was interviewed to work on crocodiles. We were taken to Tikarpada in Satkosia and Dangmal in Bhitarkanika, where we went to spot crocodiles; this was between February and December, 1975.
KS: So, who was this group who was taken around?
BC: It was L.A.K. Singh, Sudhakar Kar and me. Chandrasekhar joined us around two years later. I remember that nesting was taking place all along the main beach then, not only on the sand spit.
KS: So Chandrasekhar told me that there were names for the three of you—Mugger Choudhury, Crocodile Kar and Gharial Singh.
BC: Yes! I was called Mugger Choudhury because I was supposed to work in Simlipal with Mr. SR Choudhury. But on my first visit to Gahirmatha, I was taken to the mass nesting site, sometime in December. I had a hurricane lamp and a paint box. You know, 30 metres apart, people would paint a cross on a turtle so that you didn’t count it again.
KS: This was the arribada in 1975?
BC: Yes this was the arribada in the last week of December, 1975. The first night I did that I marked 18,000 turtles and I remember thinking, “This is not my cup of tea, I am not going to do this.” I had not the slightest idea that this was just a weeklong affair, and was under the impression that I would probably be doing this every night. So, the next morning, I said, “This was a good experience but I want to work with crocodiles and not with turtles.”
My reason for this was that I had this travel bug: I thought working on muggers would take me across the entire country while working on turtles would keep me in one place. So, I left and went to Similipal to work on the crocodiles. But they said there is nothing, no muggers either. They asked me to go back to Tamil Nadu, collect mugger eggs from Tamil Nadu and bring them back to Orissa. So, that’s how I got associated with Rom Whitaker. I already knew Rom as he was part of the team who had interviewed us to join the crocodile project.
At that time, he had a sea turtle hatchery in this French lady’s [Delouche’s] backyard and he asked me to take care of the egg collection and relocation. Though it was not my primary job, I agreed to do it supplementarily. So I went on several turtle walks with Anne Joesph, Shekar Dattatri, S. Valliappan and others.
From there, in about a year and a half, I moved from Tamil Nadu to Andhra Pradesh because Orissa had no plans of taking the crocodiles back. We had collected eggs and hatched them, and the young ones were there but there was still no sign of me going back to Orissa. Then someone from Andhra Pradesh came said, “We are starting a crocodile project, why don’t you come?” The best thing about this was that they gave me the freedom to go anywhere in Andhra Pradesh. They also had plans to bring salties to Coringa sanctuary and said that they would give me the opportunity to go and survey the Andamans because you get salt water crocodiles over there. So since it was not about working on muggers or salties or turtles, and it was about what gave me an opportunity to get to any part of India, I jumped at it. So I brought back saltwater crocodiles from Andamans, went to Andhra, and then surveyed a few places where the salties were to be released. I went back to Coringa and then I came to know about the Hope Island. Some people said that a lot of turtles come here. So, I suggested that we do a survey and through that I sort of surveyed the Andhra coast.
Even though I was not directly working on turtles, my first arribada was constantly in the back of my mind. Whenever I got an opportunity, I would go do something on turtles. When I was with the Croc Bank, Zai Whitaker, Anne and I went on a sea turtle market survey to Tuticorin. We went into this place where there were these big cubicles. There would be some 20-30 green turtles and every morning they would slaughter a few. Before sunrise, people would stand in queue to buy a glass of turtle blood for 5 rupees or something.
Then, I went back to Andhra Pradesh. But by then of course the turtle project in Orissa had begun. Chandrashekar had come in and I was a regular visitor to Orissa, keeping in touch, taking crocodiles, salties or gharials. Bob had already moved his base to Hyderabad from Orissa.
KS: What was that Centre called?
BC: Hyderabad had the Crocodile Projects Secretariat but then Bob also started this training institute, Central Crocodile Breeding Management Training Institute. We had a library and ran courses for 9 months on crocodiles, turtles, etc.
KS: So when was that set up?
BC: That was set up in 1977-78. I was working for the Andhra Pradesh State Crocodile Programme but also part time for the Central Crocodile Breeding Management Training Institute. Being in charge of the library, I would constantly copy things to send to Chandrashekar. That was also when I organised flipper tags for his work, Australian Proprietary Limited or something, something like ten thousand tags were brought in. So, I was not necessarily working on turtles but rather facilitating turtle work. I was the conduit through which all the researchers would get the information from Bob, and I was kind of technical support for Bob. At the same time, my deal was that whichever state I wanted to visit, I would be allowed to go. That’s how I managed until I joined the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in 1984.
KS: So the centre closed after that did it?
BC: Yeah later, not immediately, sometime in 1986-87.
KS: But was there any other connection between WII and the centre?
BC: No, the Central Crocodile Breeding Training institute was independently under the Ministry and the Wildlife Research and Training in the Forest Research Institute. They used to run a training program for the officers and they decided that that programme and the crocodile programme would merge and become WII. So that’s how the institute was created and an attempt was made to shift the Hyderabad centre to Dehradun. But there was strong resistance, so the centre changed its name and continued as the Crocodile Research Centre of the WII.
KS: So there was some sort of merging of the institutes?
BC: Yes, they also told me that just crocodiles are not enough; look into turtles as well. So I was being told, “Can you go on a trip somewhere, help look at turtles.” I started to think that I could be more actively involved with turtle research. That is when the institute MSc programme had started. Soon after, Bivash Pandav joined and finished his Masters and wanted to do something on sea turtles, so I suggested that we survey the Orissa coast. That is how the first report came out and then I told him, “Why don’t you write a bigger project for the institute and we take up a far larger number for tagging?” Interestingly, it was the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation who provided funded money for researchers. There were not many people who were willing to work on turtles. I had a meeting with the Swaminathan Foundation and said that unless we paid more, not many people would come.
But where I have influenced to some degree the involvement of other organizations in turtle conservation was influencing Bob into pressuring the Indian government to involve the naval forces, because he had access to the Prime Minister’s office. Through his contacts, he was instrumental in taking Mrs Gandhi to Orissa.
KS: I didn’t know she made a visit. When was that?
BC: This was when Nandini Satpathy was the Chief Minister of Orissa, so it would be somewhere around 1976 or so. Her visit to the mass nesting site probably changed everything.
KS: You were associated with sea turtles from the 1970s onwards. In all of the literature and news, suddenly there is a lot of attention towards them in late 1970s – early 1980s. I have heard the perspective of the people who were in the middle of that, but for you, you were not directly part of the Madras group, you were not directly part of the Orissa group, so just looking at it from the outside as an interested person, how would you say it compared to other national wildlife priorities like tigers and elephants and so on?
BC: Turtles have never been in the national agenda of India: Orissa – yes, the arribada – yes, but turtle conservation per se across the Indian coastline – not really.
KS: But just Orissa by itself, for example, was it as visible as tigers were when all these articles came out? When Mrs Gandhi said we must protect the turtles, was it also visible to the public or was it just something going on within a small wildlife circle?
BC: I would say it was sort of in between. Yes, you know it was the spectacle of arribada, it didn’t have the visual impact of what we see now and yes, stories were written – how it was the world’s largest mass nesting site. But the visual impact around the upturned turtles being traded to Calcutta was probably greater. And someone who has also made an impact, who was not necessarily working on sea turtles but on freshwater turtles was J. Vijaya. I am sure you know her contribution of highlighting the ridleys’ plight on the Orissa coast. It has never gotten the attention it deserved. I have a lot of letters from her – her passion really shines through.
KS: Of course. The story goes that Indira Gandhi asked the Coast Guard to protect the turtles off the Odisha coast, after seeing her pictures in India Today. So when and why did Bob Bustard leave India? Did his project come to an end?
BC: Bob’s tenure was over, but the crocodile component of the programme was also coming to an end. They realized that farming was no longer a possibility. It was only a conservation programme and had reached saturation.
KS: Why was that? Who came to the conclusion that it should not be farmed?
BC: M. Krishnan. Krishnan was then in the Indian Board for Wildlife and I remember in 1979 or 1980, I wrote a paper on crocodile farming prospects. It was presented in a national seminar in Hyderabad. Then, in 1980, the FAO organised a Wildlife Utilisation seminar in Hyderabad, and I presented a similar paper there as well (there is probably a proceedings somewhere). Two people opposed it strongly. In the Indian Board for Wildlife’s meeting, M. Krishnan had made a statement about farming, saying “Over my dead body!” I think you might find it in the records of the Indian Board for Wildlife. And the other person who was vehemently opposed crocodile farming in the Hyderabad symposium was Kailash Sankhala. I think crocodile farming could have been a possibility but for these two.
KS: Fascinating bit of history. Ok, tell me more about your turtle work.
BC: It would be difficult for me to say when I moved, when I jumped lock, stock and barrel to turtles. There’s probably been an association all the time, but not as strongly until I moved to the WII. Actually, at no point of time has that kind of research money ever been given to a project. Bivash’s project which was funded out of the institutes grant in aid at that point of time was the most expensive research project ever given (29 lakhs). Then of course the Minister for Environment and Forests, Suresh Prabhu, wanted to launch a turtle project. Bivash and I began to draft something and shortly after there was a full newspaper advertisement launch of Project Sea Turtle, Government of India, and that is how the UNDP project came about.
KS: That’s great, especially since I worked as part of it later. But going back to your childhood, you grew up in Berhampur right?
KS: So, did you hear about turtles growing up? Had you heard your parents talking about turtles?
BC: My father would talk to me about it because our ancestral place was near the Bahuda river. Yes, there were turtles but not in the numbers we see now. He also told me something interesting. My father’s elder brother apparently used to go to Myanmar and he used to tell me that, occasionally, he used to take turtle shells there.
KS: Take them from?
BC: From the Orissa coast to Myanmar. He said they used to sell turtle shells from Orissa but I never knew at what scale.
KS: But you grew up pretty close to the coast, do you remember hearing anything about turtles when you were in school and college?
BC: No, not really. By the time I was doing my Master’s degree in 1973-74, we used to hear about turtles, see pictures, and hear about turtles being traded and so on.
KS: Thank you so much. It was really lovely hearing about your experiences.