Turtle Species Thought Extinct is Saved by Hindu Temple

The black softshell turtles are being cared for at the Hayagriva Madhav Temple 17 years after being declared extinct in the wild.

Jul 1, 2019

The black softshell turtle – nilssonia nigricans – is thriving thanks to divine intervention. The rarest of India's 28 turtle species was declared extinct 17 years ago, but a few Hindu temple ponds in Assam have taken care of the species and kept it alive.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature red-listed the species in 2002 due to the loss of habitat and over-exploitation of the popular food, but the caretakers of the Hayagriva Madhav Temple in Hajo India have given the turtles a chance to recover in the ponds surrounding the ancient temple.

The temples residents said that they have to protect the black softshell turtles due to their sacred status because turtles are believed to be the reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.

"There are plenty of turtles in the temple pond," Jayaditya Purkayastha, from the conservation group Good Earth told AFP.

"The population of the turtle in Assam has gone down by a great extent. So we thought we needed to intervene and do something to save the species from extinction," said Purkayastha. Good Earth worked with the temple’s caregivers in a joint breeding program.

One of the key Turtle caretakers is Pranab Malakar who took an interest in the turtle's well-being. He said, "I used to take care of them as I like them. Later, after I became associated with Good Earth, it became my responsibility."Malakar has been helping the turtles breed by collecting the turtle eggs that are laid on the sandy banks around the pond and transferring them in an incubator until they hatch.

In January 2019, Good Earth released 35 turtle hatchlings, including 16 black softshell, that were raised at the Hajo temple, into the waters of a wildlife sanctuary. The hatchlings were first quarantined in the Assam state zoo in Guwahati according to The Hindu.

This is a milestone in Assam’s turtle conservation history, and it would not have been possible without the interest shown by the temple authorities in the artificial breeding program,” Purkayastha said.

But the turtle rescue effort has had its share of drawbacks too. The temple ponds are at full turtle capacity now, and because concrete borders were built around the ponds, the turtles egg laying space is limited.

The hundreds of daily visitors that visit the temple, throw bread and other food to the turtles (who seem to like that a lot) but the diet has triggered some biological changes in the turtles, according to Purkayastha. The turtles have lost their natural tendency to hunt for food. This has to be reestablished for the turtles to survive in the wild.

Since 70 percent of the species found in Assam are still threatened with extinction, the coalition is working on expanding the breeding program to other ponds in the area. 

Hopefully, these new efforts will be as successful as the one that was able to save and release black softshell turtles back into the wild. This was an unexpected gift for the species that was declared extinct so many years ago.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.

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