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.

Photo© Debangini Ray

The Indian Flapshell turtle is one of the most commonly trafficked species of turtles for their meat and calipee.


Another significant problem which might be unique to Assam is an overpopulation of turtles in temple ponds leading to overcrowding, prompting ex-situ conservation and necessitating a need for captive breeding for the endangered species, so that they can be released in their natural habitats. How have the turtles landed in the temple ponds you ask? Religious reverence for the turtles had given rise to age old beliefs in Assam, that donating turtles to temple ponds after the birth of a child can actually bring good fortune! Need I mention that it is illegal to even remove turtles from their natural habitats?

Most of the turtles in India are protected under Schedules I and IV of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, and any attempt to hunt them or remove them from their natural habitat can result in minimum imprisonment of 7 years extending up to 10 years and a minimum fine of INR 25,000 which can extend up to INR 50,000 under the Act (5).

There are quite a few temple ponds which provide food and shelter to turtles in Assam. On the positive side, these ponds apart from being a repository of turtles, also act as a laboratory for conducting research on various aspects of turtles, helping to educate people in the process. Temple ponds like Jorpukhuri (Ugratara Devalaya, Uzanbazar), Hayagriv Madhav Mandir (Hajo), Kaso Pukhuri (Kamakhya Devalaya) and Nagshankar Mandir (Sonitpur district), house a large number of turtles, including the Black Softshell turtle which had been declared Extinct in the Wild by IUCN in 2002 (6).

Photo ©Debangini Ray

A Black Softshell turtle (Nilssonia nigricans) accepting a banana being fed to it by a temple visitor at Kaso Pukhuri, Kamakahya Devalaya.

But these ponds have their own unique problems.

You see, turtles need one very important thing to survive- sunlight! Basking helps to produce Vitamin D for shell growth, increases their blood flow, aides in shell growth of the eggs and determines the sex of the hatchlings (7). Unfortunately, in most of the temple ponds, there are no basking spots. Turtles trying to desperately climb aboard fallen branches and twigs in an attempt to bask, is a common sight in most of the temple ponds here. Equally serious is the problem of beautification of temple ponds, wherein the ponds are concretized from all sides, leaving no room for the turtles to come up and lay eggs, or bask.


Photo ©Debangini Ray

Turtles trying to bask atop fallen branches and bamboo shafts in Jorpukhuri, Ugratara Devalaya

I have been an observer of community perceptions on turtles for a few years now, having interacted with temple authorities and visitors to these temples, conservationists working on field, enforcement agencies trying to implement law (while facing numerous successes and failures), as well as indigenous fishing communities living along “turtle hotspots” (8) in Assam. I have realized over the years that though a single person can steer towards making a significant change, getting more hands on the deck can really ensure the ship sails smoother over turbulent waters. I am speaking here, of a multi-agency approach being the need of the hour. Let me give three examples from Assam which will hopefully explain what I am talking about.

The first story is that of two NGOs who have joined hands with temple authorities and Forest Dept., to revive the population of Softshell turtles, especially the Black Softshell, in the wild. It begins with the untiring efforts of Dr Jayaditya Purkayastha (9) to bring about a shift in the attitude of temple authorities towards the turtles in their ponds. It finally worked, when the temple authorities of Hayagriva Madhava temple in Hajo and Ugratara Devalaya in Uzanbazar, joined hands with Dr Purkayastha and his team (the NGO Help Earth), to ensure safe hatching, rearing and successful release of a total of 105 Softshell turtle hatchlings in the wild (in two batches), last year! Turtle Survival Alliance-India led by Dr Shailendra Singh (10) and the Forest Department at Assam Zoo under the leadership of DFO Tejas Mariaswamy, carried out health assessments and quarantining of the hatchlings. Ultimately, their combined efforts led to a successful release of healthy hatchlings in their natural habitat at Pobitora. I hope we have a lot more of this very soon, with even more support this time!


Photo ©Dr Jayaditya Purkayastha

Softshell hatchlings being reared and released in their natural habitat in a joint effort by NGOs Help Earth, TSA-India and Assam Forest Dept.

The second story is of an NGO opting for a participatory approach, by joining hands with the indigenous community living in the area to increase their awareness on turtles, at the same time providing them with an alternative livelihood to ensure a long-term commitment. I am speaking here about the ancient Kaivarta community (11) residing since time immemorial at Biswanath Ghat, a strategic turtle conservation location and one of the most recent additions to the Kaziranga National Park. Because of laws banning fishing in the river (which forms a part of the core area of the Park) and seasonal bans, along with setting up of a Forest Beat office and regular patrolling, the community had started to feel threatened, as they had no alternative livelihood. It was a challenge to get their support and change their attitudes towards the aquatic species because they thought it would put their livelihoods at stake.

In such a scenario, Turtle Survival Alliance- India set up a Nature Discovery Centre in the Ghat, as a potential for community-based conservation practices and aimed to bring in community awareness for freshwater turtles in the area. Kaso Sakhi (literally translating to Friend of Turtles) is a wonderful initiative led by Dr Parimal Ray and Ms Arpita Dutta from TSA-India (12), which has laid a solid foundation for a change in perception of the villagers towards turtles. Kaso Sakhi is a self-help group consisting of women weavers and children from the villagers, who are trained to weave turtle motifs in the gamusas (Assamese traditional towels) which they make. This initiative ensures that their weaving is supported and encouraged, leading to an alternative livelihood for the community, along with empowering the women and igniting enthusiasm among the children, to save turtle species. As my opening quote had said, we will not protect something we don’t care about, and I am positive that the future generation there will definitely start caring about the aquatic fauna of the Brahmaputra River in the next few years.


Photo ©Dr Parimal Ray

Kasi Sakhis showing their hand-woven games with turtle motifs, a close-up view of the turtle motifs


The third story is the role of law enforcement agencies in combating not just turtle trafficking, but wildlife trafficking in Northeast India, and how NGOs can unite those agencies to work for the same goal. We have strict legal provisions under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, one which can apprehend any person abetting or committing a wildlife crime. Knowledge of the provisions under the WLPA,1972, can strengthen the capacity of enforcement agencies like Forest Dept, Customs, Sashastra Seema Bal, Border Security Force, Assam Rifles, Railway Police Force and State Police when it comes to put an end to wildlife trafficking.

This is exactly what the Counter Wildlife Trafficking Program under Wildlife Conservation Society-India is doing - training the enforcement agencies to identify commonly smuggled species like freshwater turtles and pangolins in the Northeast, and the legal provisions to be used while booking cases against the perpetrators. The impact of a multi-agency approach can be seen in a recent incident of seizure this year by Sashastra Seema Bal, Railway Police Force and Assam Forest Department jointly, wherein 46 Softshell turtles were recovered from a train going from Assam to New Delhi (13).

The Forest Department in Biswanath Ghat too, under the leadership of Mr. Pranjal Baruah, Forest Range Officer, has done a remarkable job of making the communities stay informed about the laws and reminding them how strict the punishment can be if someone commits an offence. This coupled with the fact that there have been numerous cases till 2018, where villagers have been caught selling turtles, have made the communities fearful of the law. According to Mr. Baruah, there has been a steady rise in reporting and assistance calls for turtle rescues, and a decrease in illegal activities since last year. I feel there is immense potential to develop Biswanath Ghat as a turtle hotspot and if the NGOs can join hands with the Forest Dept. and the communities, then the turtle diversity of the Brahmaputra there, can be safeguarded.


Photo © Pranjal Baruah

Forest Dept. releasing a Softshell back into the river at Biswanath Ghat after recovering it from a villager


Reflecting on the turtle conservation scenario in Assam about three years ago, I feel that it was mainly about diagnosing the existing problems and comparing it with the present; I can see the efforts on the field have multiplied. While this is something to be appreciated, we must realize that it is a critical stage, for it is easy to put something in motion, but more difficult to continue it till the end. I am gently reminding my readers that each one of us, has a role to play. NGOs, law enforcement agencies, local communities, temple authorities will continue doing their part, but you, my dear reader, can also help. How? By taking an interest to learn about the conservation efforts being taken in your backyards to save turtles. Yes! The turtles in the temple ponds are a part of urban biodiversity. You can visit, observe, show an interest, talk to temple authorities, and volunteer to keep the ponds clean. Moreover, do read about illegal wildlife trade and report to enforcement agencies if you happen to see suspicious dabbling in turtles around you!



PHOTO ©Debangini Ray

An Indian tent turtle hatchling recovered and later released from a fisherman’s by-catch at Biswanath Ghat

I believe this is truly the time when conservation in India should make way for an interdisciplinary approach, because humans and animals are in this entangled web and one cannot be saved or harmed without involving the other in it. The more aware we will be, the more difficult it will be for criminals to operate and maybe, just maybe, one day, we will bring back a healthy population of turtles thriving in their natural habitats, without the fear of being caught and killed. We can spare our future generations rummaging through their textbooks and discovering that once upon a time, their region had 20 species of turtles but only one or two species have survived, because their ancestors were too busy procrastinating to save them. Let us ensure that the story lives up to its moral- Slow and steady wins the race!


List of freshwater turtles and tortoises found in Assam (14)


FOOTNOTES:

  1. Purkayastha, et. al, 2015

  2. Lord Vishnu incarnated as turtle “Kurma Avatar” to prevent the world from destruction during the “Samudra Manthan”. Source: Bhagvad Gita, Agni Purana and Ramayana.

  3. Krishnakumar, Raghavan and Pereira. 2009

  4. This information is based on a study I conducted under TSA-India to understand the expanse of traditional ecological knowledge existing in communities regarding consumption of turtles

  5. Wild Life (Protection) (Assam Amendment) Act, 2009

  6. IUCN website - https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/2173/97400584

  7. Fergus, 2007

  8. I am using the term “turtle hotspot” to refer to a natural habitat where there is a significantly high population and diversity of turtles

  9. Dr Jayaditya Purkayastha is a herpetologist and the General Secretary of Help Earth

  10. Dr Shailendra Singh is the Director of Turtle Survival Alliance-India

  11. The Kaivartas are fisherfolk whose lives are completely dependent on fishing, and they have been residing along the Brahmaputra River since more than a century.

  12. Dr Parimal Chandra Ray is a Project Coordinator at TSA-India, Ms Arpita Dutta is the Centre Facility Manager, TSA-India

  13. Source: CWT database, WCS-India

  14. Source: TSA-India & Help Earth. The local names may not be accurate; they have been listed by me during my interactions with different communities in Assam and through interviews conducted, are subject to variations across the state.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

  1. Purkayastha, Jayaditya, Indranil Das, and Saibal Sengupta. Freshwater turtles and tortoises of South Asia. (Bhabani books, 2015)

  2. Krishnakumar, K., R. Raghavan and B Pereira. “Protected on Paper, Hunted in Wetlands: Exploitation and Trade of Freshwater Turtles (Melanochelys Trijuga Coronata and Lissemys Punctata Punctata) in Punnamada, Kerala, India”. Tropical Conservation Science, no. 2 (September 2009) 363-73. http://www.tropicalconservationscience.org

  3. Fergus,Charles. “Turtles”. Stackpole Books, 2007.

About the Author:

Debanngini Ray is an interdisciplinary ecologist, who is passionate about turtle conservation . An alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati, she is presently working with the Counter Wildlife Trafficking Program in WCS-India. She is a dedicated bookworm, believes the pen is mightier than the sword, speaks cat language and is passionate about wildlife photography.You can reach out to her at raydebangini@gmail.com

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