Slow and Steady- Will They Win the Race? …...Walking the Turtle Trail in Assam

By Debanngini Ray

“No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced” ~ David Attenborough

With this self-explanatory quote, I begin writing with a hope that I can make you, my reader, care a little, by the end of this story… a story about the freshwater TURTLES and TORTOISES of Assam, whom I like to refer to as “survivors in armour”.

Our world has seen diverse species thriving in it in the past, animals which lived unperturbed and undisturbed, but are now driven to the edge of extinction, because we just cannot seem to leave them alone! Turtles too, are fighting for survival in the world, but unfortunately, they do not often grab the limelight. On this day dedicated to the shellies, let me take you on a short turtle trail in our very own Assam.

For starters, turtles worldwide are critically important for maintaining a balance in the ecosystem. Being scavengers, they clean the aquatic ecosystem by feeding on dead and decaying plant and animal materials, pests like insects and snails as well as the ill health fish, which helps in maintaining healthy fish communities (1). Now, India boasts of having 29 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises, out of which 20 species can be found in Assam! However, most of these species are threatened with extinction mainly because of us and needless to say, these activities are putting our ecosystem under serious imbalance.

Indians often place religion on a higher pedestal than law, and such has been the case with turtles as well. While on one hand, we have religious reverence for turtles as the Kurma Avatar (2), on the other hand, we kill them for their meat and parts. Before the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 came into force, there was widespread hunting and consumption of turtles in Assam; turtles were often a by-product of fish catch, and were possibly abundant in number at that time.

However, as the population started dwindling, turtles were recognized as a threatened species. Despite this, hunting for human consumption is still considered the greatest threat to their survival. Turtles are also trafficked for their meat, calipee and bones to be used as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicines. Soft shell turtles are among the most threatened groups of freshwater animals due to their low bone-to-body ratio and larger proportions of cartilage and gelatinous skin (3). Unfortunately even within Assam, demand for turtle meat exists because people believe (without any scientific evidence) that consuming turtle meat and intestines can cure diseases like “hefoni” (dry cough), chronic dysentery and prevent “aai bemaar” (smallpox) (4). Pet trade for hard-shelled turtles is also rampant and it is particularly alarming as their demand does not seem to be decreasing at all.