The deity, Vishnu, is a powerful figure within Hinduism. As a formless, abstract being, he is only recognizable in his reincarnations. In one of his appearances, Vishnu appears as half man – half tortoise. This second turtle avatar, referred to as Kurma, helps “restore the cosmic equilibrium” in times of crisis, returning to the earth in troubled times to restore the balance of good and evil.
For devotees, the Black Softshell turtle still represents Vishnu’s incarnation as Kurma. Native to India, the Black Softshell turtle used to be an abundant species of freshwater turtle. Habitat loss and overexploitation have massively depleted the population of freshwater turtles. In many aquatic environments, softshell turtles play a critical role in preserving the integrity of the ecosystem.
Sadly, many of India’s freshwater ponds are oxygen depleted and overcrowded. Moreover, ponds at temples tend to draw hundreds of visitors who offer human food to the turtles, not realizing the negative impact it has on their nutrition and natural tendency to hunt. The northeastern state of India, Assam, is home to 20 of the 28 freshwater turtle and tortoise species found in all of India. Half of them are threatened with extinction.
The Black Softshell turtle was first discovered in 1875, but during the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assessment in 2002, the Black Softshell turtle was declared extinct in the wild. The report indicated that the species was restricted to a single artificial temple pond near Chittagong, Bangladesh.
In plain sight
Many temple ponds still contain quite a few turtles, but few attempts have been taken to investigate the species inhabiting them. However, since the Black Softshell looks very similar to the Peacock Softshell turtle, sorting through temple turtles isn’t exactly an easy task.
Help Earth was founded by Jayaditya Purkayastha. It contributes to numerous areas of biodiversity research, local conservation efforts, and governmental decision-making throughout Northeast India. Recently, Purkayastha has been investigating temple ponds as potential safe havens for vulnerable turtle species, like the Black Softshell turtle.
“The population of the [Black Softshell] 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,” says Jayaditya Purkayastha, Secretary General of Help Earth.
The Hayagriva Madhav temple is considered the most important and sensitive pond in terms of turtle conservation. Pranab Malakar is the caretaker of this pond. While his primary responsibility is to keep the pond and surroundings clean, he has taken a special interest to the turtles in the pond. Spending time taking care of any one of the fourteen turtle species found there.
When Purkayastha reached out to the Hayagriva Madhav temple, Pranab Malakar was the first person Purkayastha asked about the turtles in the pond. To everyone’s surprise, Pranab Malakar had been tending to wild Black Softshell turtles for years.
Because of the spiritual importance of the Black Softshell turtle, temple officials took notice and encouraged Pranab to continue his work. So while scientists had thought the Black Softshell turtle had gone extinct, Pranab Malakar was busy incubating Black Softshell Turtle eggs.
Purkayastha says it feels good to know that that the Black Softshell turtle still exists in the wild. He expects that this species will soon be downgraded from “extinct in the wild” (ICUN-EW) to “critically endangered” (ICUN-CR).
Baby Turtle Factory
Today, Purkayastha helps facilitate Pranab Malakar’s efforts. A complete breeding program has been established at the Hayagriva Madhav temple, and in January , the program produced 35 turtle hatchlings – 16 alone were Black Softshell turtles.
The successful breeding program has encouraged Purkayastha to find other temple in hopes of starting breeding programs there as well. So far, he has identified 17 other temple ponds collectively containing 14 of the 20 turtle species native to Assam.
“The main goal of our project is to create a better breeding facility in these temple ponds for turtles as well as improve the care and management of eggs in our incubation facility. To reduce mortality, we plan on rearing the hatchlings for a standard period of time (around six months) before releasing them into protected wild spaces.” A few individuals will even be harnessed with radio transmitters, which Purkayastha will use to track the movement of the Black Softshells as Help Earth restocks the wild Black Softshell population.
Pranab Malakar is still the primary caretaker at the Hayagriva Madhav temple pond. He carefully collects the turtle’s eggs laid along the sandy banks of the pond before transporting them to the incubators. Much like Vishnu, Pranab Malakar has helped restore the balance . . . of turtles . . . in a time of crisis.
- Agence France Press (2019) Indian temple helps nurture ‘extinct’ turtle back to life
- Sharma, A. (2019) Indian temple helps nurture ‘extinct’ turtle back to life. Phys.org
- Business Insider (2019) Turtle power: Indian temple helps nurture ‘extinct’ turtle back to life
- Weston, P. (2019) Indian temple helps nurture ‘extinct’ turtle back to life