Following release of the black softshell turtle – Nilssonia nigricans – population in Assam’s Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary last year, Guwahati-based herpetologist Jayaditya Purkayastha is hoping for a revision in the animal’s status, currently classified as extinct in the wild by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

As part of a conservation programme that Purkayastha is involved in, eggs laid by the turtles in temple ponds in Assam are brought to the state zoo for hatching. Hatchlings are later released in the sanctuary. The researcher, who works with the species’ conservation in 18 temple ponds in the state, hopes that the status of the black softshell turtle will be upgraded to “critically endangered”.

Last year, in February and then around September-October, 70 hatchlings of the species were released in Pobitora with the involvement of forest department officials and turtle experts, including Purkayastha, who also heads Help Earth, a non-profit organisation working in the field of biodiversity conservation.

“My primary goal is to understand the ecology and biology of the black softshell turtle in their natural habitat. For that, radio tracking of some of the animals will be imperative for developing a long-term conservation plan for the species,” he explained.

Conservation of the black softshell turtle, found in Assam’s temple ponds, kicked off in 2012 when Purkayastha started working with temple authorities. The eggs were laid in temple ponds and then taken to the state zoo where the hatchlings emerged. The first release of hatchlings in the wildlife sanctuary happened in 2016. Since then, till last year, 300 hatchlings have been released into the sanctuary.

However, Purkayastha warns that the release does not ensure the survival of all hatchlings. As of now, no monitoring on the survival rate has been done yet as transmitters were not fitted on the animals. “By wild population, we do not mean a handful of animals, but a viable population,” Purkayastha told Mongabay-India.

Many factors contribute to a viable population, which depends on the breeding rate. “However, I think the [International Union for Conservation of Nature] Red List is in the process of declaring the species as critically endangered,” he said.

The turtles made their way into temple ponds after being donated by devotees. The religious link to the turtles goes back to the Ahom kings of Assam, who used to revere turtles and donated them to temples. “We have to restock the wild population to secure the species’ future,” Purkayastha said. “Our aim should be how to use the temple population to rejuvenate the wild population. If there is a viable wild population, only then we can secure the species’ future.”

Identification matters

The black softshell turtle – one of India’s 29 freshwater turtles and tortoises – is also known as the Bostami turtles, after the shrine of Bayazid Bostami in Chittagong, Bangladesh. It resembles the Indian peacock softshell turtle or Nilssonia hurum, which is classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Accuracy in identification is, therefore, challenging but necessary to ascertain the species’ exact population.

“It is hard for us to identify [the black softshell turtle],” said Purkayastha. “I presume researchers saw similar looking turtles and named the black softshell as peacock softshell. I have realised that the Bostami is not as rare as it was thought to be.”

Purkayastha is focussing on ecological factors to differentiate between the two species. According to him, the black softshell comes in close proximity to humans and is more terrestrial than the peacock softshell. Black softshell are bigger in size and have broader heads than the peacock softshell, which have slender ones, he noted.

“Experts who came to Assam from elsewhere found turtles resembling the peacock softshell and so they listed the black softshell as peacock softshell. When we started working [in 2012], we followed their notes naturally,” he said.

The Assamese name of the black softshell, Bormuria kaso, also helped Purkayastha in identification. In Assamese, bor means big, mur means head and kaso means turtle. The peacock softshell is referred to as bor kaso. “When I saw the biggest ones, I knew they were Bostami turtles. A big jawline for holding a bigger prey necessitated a broader head. I noticed that in ponds, the Bostami turtles fed on ducks. The peacock softshell mostly eats small fish,” he said.

The snout length also helped in identification. The snouts of Bostami turtles are smaller than the peacock softshell, as they are less aquatic in nature. The incubation period is another pointer. The incubation period of the black softshell is 70-80 days and that of the peacock softshell is 150 days. The peacock softshell lays eggs sometime in October. Their eggs hatch before the arrival of floods in June. The Bostami turtles lay eggs in April.

Role of temples

Wildlife biologist Shailendra Singh, who heads the Turtle Survival Alliance in India, was actively involved in the conservation of the Bostami turtles in Assam. The organisation has been working, along with Purkayastha in some temples as part of the conservation programme.

“Eggs [of turtles laid in temple ponds] were hatched in the Assam State Zoo in Guwahati in plastic trays,” said Singh. “From there, the hatchlings were released in the sanctuary post monsoon when they were three months old. After the eggs hatched, we carried out a health assessment, quarantined the hatchlings and then released them in Pobitora.”

Assam State Zoo head animal keeper Praveen Haloi narrated his experience of caring for the hatchlings that are nurtured at the zoo before being released into the sanctuary. He said it is vital to look after them properly.

Tejas Mariswamy, divisional forest officer at Assam State Zoo, said though the breeding was happening in the temple ponds, their target was to release the turtles in the wild. Even if 10% of turtles survive, it is good, as the survival rate in the initial phase is low.

So far, post-release tracking has not taken place yet as no devices were fitted on the turtles that were released. In the future, Purkayastha has plans to hold back 10-20 Bostami turtle hatchlings that they breed in the zoo and until they grow to one kg in size. “This will help us to fit radio transmitters for tracking to know their wild preferences,” he said.

He feels that though many animals live longer in zoos than their wild counterparts due to the lack of predators, ready food availability and veterinary support, zoos are not ideal habitats for animals.

Nagshankar temple pond which houses black softshell turtles and is part of the project. Credit: Shailendra Singh/Turtle Survival Alliance

Limited scope

In Assam when a child is born, a common practice is to donate turtles to temples as people believe they live long. “Due to large-scale consumption of the Bostami turtles in the past, they got wiped out in the wild,” said Purkayastha. “Fortunately, due to this religious custom of releasing the turtles in temple ponds, the animals survived.”

However, there are a number of drawbacks too of keeping turtles in temples. Temple priests have no idea that turtles need to bask. Offerings of bread, biscuits and puffed rice by devotees impact their biology as well as ecology. As a result, some measures are necessary. For instance, at the Hajo Haigrib temple, fish chunks are now offered. Basking spots have been created with bamboo to help turtles. The animals are being given a mixed diet in the temple ponds, said Singh.

“Once donations flowed in, the natural banks of these ponds turned into concrete slabs for beautification,” Purkayastha said. “Turtles had a tough time climbing the stairs to lay eggs, so we broke some of the corners and filled up with silt. The surface heat on the stairs was high and the yolk dried up.”

As a remedy, transparent plastic boxes filled up with riverine silt were used for hatching. The silt was made bacteria-free, after which the eggs were placed. The temple authorities were initially resistant and had to be convinced and trust had to be built, said Purkayastha.

After awareness campaigns at the Hajo temple, steps were taken to provide suitable food and surroundings to the black softshell turtles. Credit: Turtle Survival Alliance

Singh of Turtle Survival Alliance, however, does not support turtle conservation in the temples. “Temple conservation has a limited scope of doing real recovery. But they provide a good opportunity due to the religious angle and people’s involvement. The temple authorities are not willing to release the animals in the wild. They are possessive. Temple turtles are kept in a pathetic state. If you try and breed such turtles, at first you have to quarantine them for 60-90 days, depending on their health status.”

Singh cited the example of the Nagaon Shivasthan temple in Assam where the turtles were in a bad shape. “After [the Turtle Survival Alliance] convinced the temple authorities, they handed over about 69 turtles to us in 2019,” he said. “Given their poor health condition, 124 turtles were also evacuated from the Nag Shankar temple this year. Temples should be discouraged to keep turtles. Also, we need to be careful about what we put in the wild.”

The Lucknow-based expert prescribes integrated guidelines for temple turtles of Assam as these turtles come under the district administration and not the forest department. But Singh agrees that temples are also a good spot to generate the interest of people, especially that of children. “We cannot do anything with the turtles we already have in these temples. But I do not want any new ones. The temples at times follow our recommendations and at other times they do not.”

High water temperature in the ponds in May and June are another cause for concern. Turtles can choose temperature gradients in the wild. But in ponds, they cannot escape. “We have to reduce the demand, or otherwise, people will think that these temples are doing good work. People should not buy turtles and put them in ponds,” said Singh.

Black softshell turtle eggs from temple pond being translocated to safer areas for hatching. Credit: Bishwajeet Baruah/ Turtle Survival Alliance

Quarantine ponds

Under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, all turtles are a protected species. But people still poach them. As the black softshell turtle is the biggest in terms of size, it is targeted due to its abundance of meat. In Pobitora, there is adequate protection even though there is natural predation by monitor lizards.

In India, the five turtle priority areas are the Chambal and Yamuna landscapes, the Indo-Nepal Himalayan Terai, Eastern India comprising Sundarbans and Odisha, the Brahmaputra river system landscape, and the Western Ghats.

Purkayastha said though the black softshell is critical, other species are vulnerable too. Many factors are responsible for the current situation. “Turtles don’t lay as many eggs as fish. Often, their nests are inundated due to floods. Sand mining poses a threat in the riverine areas due to the operation of dredgers. We have this mega mammal myopia which does not let us see beyond tigers and rhinos. Turtles hardly get any recognition. In Tripura, turtles are openly available in the market. As the Brahmaputra is changing its course, it is also affecting turtle dynamics.”

However, there is a silver lining too. Parimal Chandra Ray, project coordinator in charge of the North East, Turtle Survival Alliance, spoke about the creation of quarantine ponds in temples to keep turtles safe. “A plan is in the offing at the Nagshankar temple,” he said. “We are creating a long term programme for donated turtles. The temple has two ponds and about 10-11 species are confined in these. The water quality had worsened due to external feeding by devotees. So we suggested a change of the pond water and taking out of the debris and plastics. There were about 100 animals in the ponds. The plan is to restrict the entry of new donations in temple ponds. We will put them in a quarantine pond and release them later. We are starting with the Nagshankar temple on an experimental basis.”

“After rescuing turtles from the Nagaon Amolapatty Shiva Than temple last year and releasing them in the Assam’s Burachapori Wildlife Sanctuary, we motivated the temple authorities,” Ray added. “We can’t check donations, as most people have religious beliefs due to the kurma avatar connection. But we also told them to provide their turtles with good habitat and they created a tank with modifications.”

Hatchlings of the black softshell turtle. Credit: Akash Singh/Turtle Survival Alliance

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh

Subhashis Das researched Bostami turtles as part of his thesis work for his forestry and environmental science programme at the Shahjalal University of Science and Technology in Sylhet, Bangladesh.

According to him, the Bostami turtles living in captivity for a long time generate spiritual interest among devotees. “For this reason, reintroduction in nature is close to impossible. During my research, some people informed me about a relocation attempt of about two to three turtles, but most probably they did not survive. Later, one of the turtles was brought back to the shrine.”

The mazaar or shrine committee is strict about these animals. There is a breeding ground inside the mazaar, but no one is allowed to go near the place without permission. But the pond size is small and the turtle population is increasing. Since every creature lives in a territory of its own, these turtles are losing their much-needed area, Das explained.

“It’s obviously hampering their life span, size and habits. So from my point of view, conservation of these turtles may be good for now, but not for the future.”

According to Das, the reintroduction of the turtles can be attempted by making similar ecosystems in other places. But since in Bangladesh, religious views are strong, it won’t be of much help. “So, the only option which remains is improving the pond quality or size. If somehow, the pond size can be made bigger, then the territory of each turtle will also increase. It will help in increasing the quality of the pond ecosystem as well.”

A woman offers bread crumbs to a black softshell turtle at a shrine in Bangladesh. Credit: Shailendra Singh/Turtle Survival Alliance.

According to Peter Praschag, the founder of Turtle Island, a turtle conservation and research centre, based in Austria, turtles, together with apes, are the most critically endangered vertebrate group. In healthy habitats, turtles have a high percentage of biomass and are an important group for the ecosystem. Turtles are an excellent indicator of the quality of a habitat.

“I grew up with turtles. The fascination for South Asia led to more than 20 trips to India,” said Praschag. “Before I discovered the existence of the Bostami turtle in North East India, it was only known in the Bostami shrine in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The species can thrive very well in artificial temple ponds. These ponds can be easily modified, nest beaches can be established and these ponds can be used as assurance colony breeding for releases into the wild. In addition, as temples attract a high number of people they can be used for awareness on turtles. Out of all species of turtles one can find in temple ponds, the Bostami turtle is the best adapted and the most stunning species.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.