Hindu Temples bring back the black softshell turtle species – declared extinct 17 years ago
In India, a species turtle thought to have gone extinct in 2002, the black softshell turtle, has a new chance at life thanks to efforts by the caretakers of Hindu Temples and conservationists. There, the turtles are revered and protected as the reincarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu.
The freshwater turtles were once abundant, but outside the temple, the turtles were a popular food, and their habitat was destroyed. Two years after the black softshell turtles (Nilssonia nigricans) were declared extinct in the wild, a few turtles were found in ancient ponds and carefully tended to by people who love them.
The pond of the temple has provided a safe haven, thanks to the sacred status of turtles protecting them from harm. “There are plenty of turtles in the temple pond,” said Jayaditya Purkayastha, from conservation group Good Earth. pic.twitter.com/h0Fj9akvOa
— Hindustan Times (@HindustanTimes) June 12, 2019
At the at Hayagriva Madhav is Assam, north of Bangladesh, caretaker Pranab Malakar carefully collects the turtle’s eggs laid on the sandy banks of the temple pond. Before that, many turtle eggs were damaged on the cement sides of the pond.
Madhav started incubating them in 2008 and works with the Guwahati zoo to rear them. The turtles began finding new homes at a nearby wildlife sanctuary in January 2019.
“No one harms them here as they are incarnations of Lord Vishnu. I was born and grew up here. We have been seeing the turtles since our childhood,” said Malakar.
Turtle caretaker Pranab Malakar holds a baby turtle near the pond at Hayagriva Madhava temple in Hajo, some 35 kms from Guwahati, the capital city of India's northeastern state of Assam
Credit: Anuwar Ali Hazarika/Barcroft Media
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Malakar says the turtles have become more popular than the temple itself with visitors.
“The fish and turtles in this pond are considered sort of like Gods,” he said. “Many people come here to see the turtles. The crowds are bigger here than in the temple.”
In a partnership with conservationists at the non-governmental organization (NGO), Good Earth, the turtle breeding program is expanding to 18 other pond sanctuaries. Multiple temples are working to save the turtles in cooperations with the zoos and conservationists.
The Assam State Zoo is collaborating with the Ugratara Temple in Jor Pukhuri to save the turtles.
Kailash Sarma, president of Ugratara Temple managing committee, says they are working to distribute the turtles to protected areas with an NGO called Help Earth.
“One of the reasons of shifting the black softshell turtles is that they are carnivorous (feeding on other animals) in nature which will destroy other aquatic lives in the pond, including ducks,” says Sarma. “The overcrowding of the turtles would also destroy the ecosystem of the pond. Only a limited number of turtles will be kept in the pond while the rest will be let out to other protected places. We have plans to save around 10,000-50,000 turtles and release them in the wild in the next ten years.”
A similar softshell turtle, the Yangtze giant softshell, has suffered a similar fate to the black softshell turtles but it may be too late. The last known female died on April 13, 2019, at a Chinese zoo. Perhaps more exist somewhere in the world and can be saved by people who care.
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