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The Bangladesh Python Project: Radiotracking pythons and tortoises

07 Jan

In June 2014, I traveled to Bangladesh to assist the Bangladesh Python Project. The Bangladesh Python Project was founded in 2011 by Shahriar Caesar Rahman. Caesar, who was born and raised in Dhaka, had been studying ecology at CUNY-Brooklyn but felt pulled to come back and root his scientific and conservation work here in Bangladesh. With seed money and technical assistance from The Orianne Society, the help of a Bangladeshi conservation NGO called CARiNAM, and the contributions of several private donors, Caesar embarked on an attempt to study the behavior of Burmese Pythons in Lawachara National Park. Last year Scott Trageser, an American ecologist and wildlife photographer, starting taking teams of people interested in herpetology to assist the project. I was part of the inaugural team.

Bangladesh Python Project team

Bangladeshi journalists covered our teams’ release of the first radiotracked tortoise in Bangladesh. Pictured are Project scientists Shahriar Caesar Rahman and Dr. SMA Rashid, staff Kanai Das, and the Project volunteer team

Our role during the two weeks we spent in Bangladesh was to assist with project work, find as many tropical herps as we could, and have a great time. Our objectives were well fulfilled.

A primary focus of the Bangladesh Python Project is the radiotracking of pythons and tortoises in Lawachara National Park. In 2013, local villagers helped Caesar and his team capture three Burmese Pythons within the park. “Asha” (4 meters), “Bonnie” (3 meters) and “Chaity” (3 meters) had radiotracking devices surgically inserted under their skin and were released back into the wild. (A fourth python, “Dean”, has since been captured, transmitter-tagged, and released as well.) Caeser’s full-time tracking team uses radio antennas to locate the pythons twice a day and track their movements. All of the data is carefully recorded and will be used in a study of the ecology of pythons. That knowledge will then be used to educate public and policy makers to help them conserve pythons and other rare reptiles in Bangladesh.

The Python Team assisted Caesar and his staff in tracking the pythons. The opportunity to see wild pythons exhibiting their natural activity was incredible. Typically, pythons are only observed when they are doing something unusual and public – for example, crossing a road at night or eating someone’s chickens. If you’re extremely lucky, you might see one resting in a tree or swimming across a canal. But most of the time, pythons are engaged in secretive behavior that makes them almost impossible to find…unless you have a bead on their transmitter!

Here’s a photo of the author using a radiotracking antennae at night.

Here is “Chaity” in typical position resting in a small bamboo grove during the day.

And here is big Asha at night, with only the front of her body protruding from the trees.

Several times they were so hidden that a photo was meaningless – submerged in water and vegetation at the edge of a marsh or buried in piles of leaf litter. Without the radiotransmitters, you could have walked a foot away from them and never known they were there.

Not every python was found with the radiotracking though. This 2.5 meter python, which had not been tagged by the project, was spotted on the edge of a stream in mid-afternoon.

The python tracking had been ongoing for a year when our team arrived, but the tortoise tracking project was only just beginning. Here you can see Scott and Rashid inspecting “Aloo”, the first tortoise to be radiotagged for the project.

“Aloo” was captured in Lawachara by a local boy. Caesar has worked hard to develop a strong relationship with the local villages, and it has paid off – instead of eating or selling the tortoise, the boy and his father took the tortoise to Caesar.

Shahriar Caesar Rahmen of the Bangladesh Python Project and Dr. SMA Rashid of CARiNAM inspect the turtle, while Scott Trageser, Kanai Das, and several Bangladeshi journalists look on

Scott and Caeser affix the radiotransmittr to the tortoise while Bangladeshi journalists and project volunteers take photos.

Scott Trageser has experience in Desert Tortoise relocation efforts in the United States and so he spearheaded the health check and transmitter affixation. After Aloo’s health was cleared and the transmitter was securely attached, the tortoise was brought out to the original site of capture for release.

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Caesar, Dr. Rashid, and representatives from Lawachara National Park and the Bangladesh Forest Department get ready to release Aloo back into the wild.

Bangladesh Python Project staff member Swapon Das uses the radiotracking antennae to check Aloo’s signal just after he was released.

At the same time that local Lawachara tortoises are being tracked, Caeser is initiating a pilot study to see if Lawachara could be used as a destination for the release of tortoises confiscated from smugglers and wildlife poachers in other parts of the country “Burao” and “Clyde” were the first two tortoises to be released in that effort. The Python Team brought the tortoises to the park, where they awaited radiotransmitter affixation and release.

Here is Clyde, radiotransmitter and all, just before his release.

Tortoises are just as difficult to observe in the wild as pythons are. Our tracking often led us to clumps of branches or vegetation where the tortoises were hidden, usually with just a bit of shell visible.

We tried tracking the tortoises at all times of day and night. Before dawn we were able to find the tortoises active, motoring their way across the forest floor.

Another happy update – just last month a second native Lawachara tortoise was given to Caesar by a villager! The man was from the village where we had done the earlier tortoise outreach, so he knew that the tortoise belonged in its natural habitat in the forest, and chose not to sell it or eat it, but turn it over to the project scientists instead. This is another positive step for conservation in the region. In addition, more tortoises confiscated from other regions in Bangladesh continue to be tagged and relocated inside the park.

The Bangladesh Python Project is currently tracking 4 locally caught pythons, 2 locally caught tortoises, and 6 relocated tortoises. If funding for additional transmitters can be procured, they hope to be tracking even more specimens by the next volunteer trips in June and July 2015.

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Posted by on January 7, 2015 in Herping adventures

 

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