Centuries-old temple in Hajo and Guwahati are helping an “extinct” species of turtle, which is officially extinct in the wild, make a comeback. Believed to be a reincarnation of Hindu deity Vishnu, the black softshell turtle (Nilssonia nigricans) has been classified as Extinct in the Wild by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2002.
To save the species from extinction, which is originally a native to the lower Brahmaputra River, it has been reintroduced in the pond of the Hayagriva Madhava Temple located at Hajo, a pilgrimage centre, on the outskirts of Guwahati. A Guwahati-based conservation group ‘Good Earth’ has joined hands with temple authorities in Assam to start a breeding programme.
“Turtles are not only the most threatened groups of reptiles but also one of the most threatened groups of vertebrate. Assam is the most species-rich state in India in terms of freshwater turtles and tortoises’ diversity, accounting for 20 out of 28 species found in India. Unfortunately, 70 per cent of these 20 species are threatened with extinction, so immediate conservation action was a must,” said Jayaditya Purkayastha of ‘Good Earth’.
On choosing temples ponds as the breeding grounds, He added, “A good choice would have been to travel around the Brahmaputra and study the turtles in wild but unfortunately, we did not receive any funding. So we thought of conserving turtles in temple ponds and carry out the breeding programme as it was cost-effective and yielded positive results.”
The first batch of 35 turtle hatchlings, including 16 black softshells, was released into a wildlife sanctuary nearby in January 2019. A breeding programme has also been launched in Ugratara Temple located in Guwahati’s Uzan Bazaar.
“In Hajo, as well as in Ugratara, we have created breeding spots for turtle and also built an incubation room for the turtle eggs and a nursery, where we rear the hatchling for six months before releasing them into wild. This is done to decrease the predation rate when released into the wild. Our dream goal is to release around 1000 temple bred hatchling of turtle in the wild, to restock wild population,” Purkayastha shared.
The turtles in the Assam temple ponds are fed by the devotees and never killed owing to the religious belief, resulting into the turtles losing their natural tendency to hunt for food.
“Turtles were protected in the pond on religious grounds. But due to lack of scientific approach, the biological requirements of turtles were not addressed. Turtles need sunlight to regulate their body temperature and thus they bask. Unfortunately, there were no basking spots available within the pond,” he said.