Turtles are facing a race for survival, and it's up to humans to ensure their victory for our future

Remember the fable of the hare and the tortoise in which the tortoise wins the race because of the rabbit's fecklessness?

Well today, this slow and steady creature is up against a far more formidable opponent in a far more perilous contest-the race for survival. It is up to us to see that it wins for in its victory lies our own future.

The turtle is the world's oldest inhabitant and a vast repository of evolutionary experience and wisdom. In Hindu mythology, it is commonly portrayed as carrying the world on its back. Identified with both Prajapati, the progenitor of all life, as well as with Vishnu, the preserver of life, in reality too, it fulfils both roles. The turtle is essential to the waters of India. It is a scavenger and an important part of the food chain. If there were no turtles the rivers and oceans would quickly become polluted and the earth would die.

File image of Olive Ridley turtles in the Bay of Bengal. Reuters

File image of Olive Ridley turtles in the Bay of Bengal. Reuters

But if ancient India recognised their importance, it seems modern India is entirely ignorant of it, so intent does it seem upon the destruction of this wise and venerable creature.Look at the many ways we cause it.

Fishing doesn't just kill fish-it takes the lives of millions of other sea creatures of which the turtle is one. Nor are we talking small numbers. Over 48,000 sea turtles are killed just on one coastline by commercial fishing trawlers. Many countries have legislated to make it mandatory for fishing ships to fit trawler nets with Turtle Excluder Devices (TED) so that turtles are not caught while fishing. But not India.

We show the same careless disregard for their lives in our 'development' planning. The Narmada Sagar Dam will engulf the Shastradhara turtle habitat on the Narmada river which is India's main river turtle breeding ground. The Balukhand Sanctuary in Orissa, nesting place for horseshoe crabs and turtles.

In Bhitarkanika in Odisha, which is the world's last main nesting site of the Olive Ridley turtle, we are losing thousands of them to trawlers and shrimp farming nets as well as to fishermen who kill turtles to prevent them getting any share of the fish. A further loss are the turtles that die agonising deaths from the plastic bags that we throw into rivers which they swallow mistaking them for jellyfish.

But apart from the turtles that we kill inadvertently, there are many more deliberately destroyed for profit. The turtle is hunted for its meat, eggs, oil and shell. Every day, thousands are smuggled to Bengal where they are considered a delicacy. Their eggs are eaten and their shell is turned into tourist trinkets. What is particularly alarming about this all-out onslaught on this helpless creature is that turtle populations cannot regenerate because turtles take years to mature, have a very, very, low rate of reproduction and do not breed in captivity. On the world's list of the 10 most vulnerable species, those likely to be soon wiped out by commercial demand, two are, in fact, varieties of turtles.

On the world's list of the 10 most vulnerable species, those likely to be soon wiped out by commercial demand, two are, in fact, varieties of turtles. Not the least of the reason for this is the trade in turtles not just for slaughter but for sale as pets.

One of the most terrible sights is to see a baby turtle for sale in a 'petshop' (where living suffering creatures are sold like toilet paper) or on a market pavement. To begin with, this sale is illegal because turtles are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act and to capture, keep, buy or sell them is a non-bailable offence for which the penalty is a minimum of five years in jail. So the sellers are criminals. But even worse than they are the buyers. Around 90 percent of them are children who find these slow moving, helpless, mute creatures and whose parents buy them as toys. Two weeks later their dead bodies are found in dustbins.

The buyers had no knowledge of how to feed them or care for them. All they knew was how to pick them up, pat them, show them off to friends, trip over them, get exasperated with their unchanging behaviour and lack of response and then finally to ignore them till they faded away in slow misery. Thousands of turtles die every month like this.

In India, there is total ignorance about turtles. We have five different types of marine turtles but all five are in danger of extinction-only because people in the pet trade and illegal export trade catch them and sell them to households such as yours. What you need to remember is that turtles cannot survive as pets. So when you see any for sale, be sure to report the seller to the police and take the turtles to the zoo or if possible back to their natural environs.

If we are to save turtles, it is important to first learn about them. Some live totally in water, some live on the edges of it and others on land. What is the difference between a turtle and a tortoise? None. All shelled reptiles are referred to by biologists as turtles. However, lay people make a distinction by calling those that live, feed and breed mostly in water as turtles and those that are mainly terrestrial and rarely enter the water as tortoises. 'Terrapin' applies to those turtles that live along streams or ponds and are largely aquatic in habits.

A turtle is a cold-blooded creature, a reptile of the Chelonia order of animals. It is classified as a reptile because of its dry scaly skin and 'coldbloodedness', dependence on external heat rather than internal metabolism. As ectotherms which means they cannot produce their own body heat, turtles need outside heat sources to maintain their body temperature. That is why you see them in nature basking on rocks or logs, using the heat of the sun to survive. Because water can hold and retain heat more effectively than air, aquatic habitats in warm areas also provide this essential heat.

They have an excellent sense of smell and vision. They are particularly sensitive to reds and yellows and can detect even colours that are invisible to the human eye. They have no teeth. To eat they use their front claws to tear the food and their jaws to chew it. They have an extremely complicated way of breathing and every time you lift a turtle, you interfere with this. In fact, their breathing organs are so designed that oxygen is not distributed very easily and that is why turtles tire easily and cannot walk or do anything without frequent stops to rest.

Nearly every health problem turtles face can be directly traced to how well their thermal requirements are being met. Land turtles should be exposed to as much unfiltered natural sunlight as possible. Tortoises must be given access to sunshine or at least a heater. The best place to keep them is the garden. Most tortoises require a daytime temperature of around 80° F and at night 75° F. In cold weather, you need to provide a heat source in the form of an ultraviolet lamp. You can keep the tortoise indoors in a room as long as the temperature is suitable and a warm place is provided for basking. Remove carpeting as it will get soiled, put newspapers instead. Turtle droppings become hard in an hour or so and can then be picked up easily.

If you are keeping the turtle outdoors, the weather must be warm, the enclosure must be large and have some areas of shade, as well as, areas of sun-an unprotected tortoise can overheat quickly in the full midday sun. Several large flat rocks can serve as basking spots. Make rock caves where the turtle can retreat for shade and for safety. The rest of the area should be natural soil with leaf litter and vegetation. Make sure there are some edible plants in the enclosure such as dhaniya, mustard, and so on.

The turtle is the world's oldest inhabitant and a vast repository of evolutionary experience and wisdom. Reuters

The turtle is the world's oldest inhabitant and a vast repository of evolutionary experience and wisdom. Reuters

Do not have snapdragons, azalea, rhododendron, philodendron as these are toxic for tortoises. The enclosure should also have a shallow pond-just barely deep enough to cover the tortoise's legs, which you will need to fill and clean regularly. You can make the boundary wall of the enclosure with bricks, stones or wooden fencing. It should be several inches taller than the length of the tortoise. If you need to protect your tortoise from predators (if there are foxes in the area) put a wire mesh screen over the top of the pen. If you are keeping the tortoise indoors, you must see that it is exposed to as much sunlight as possible. It should be provided with a 12 hour on, 12 hour off light schedule.

Tortoises are mainly herbivorous and graze on grasses, and plants. They can be fed bananas, apple, melons, grapes, mushrooms, as well as green leafy vegetables like mustard greens (sarson). A lot of people just feed land turtles lettuce which has few vitamins. Besides it is often treated with insecticide which will poison the animal. Instead give the leaves of dandelions, and beans, fruit, vegetables and other nutritious food that has not been treated with chemicals and avoid lettuce. Most land turtles are omnivorous and need a little meat as well. They eat snails, earthworms and small fish.

If you give live food, check regularly for worms and intestinal parasites. Add dietary supplements like a drop of cod-liver oil on the food every other meal and a pinch of calcium powder. You can also give white bread softened in milk but this sometimes leads to diarrhoea.

Most tortoises should be fed three times a week even though they may eat less in winter. It is important to have a water dish at all times. Even aquatic turtles need access to clean drinking water at all times. Use a shallow, heavy bowl that does not tip over easily. Replace water daily.

Aquatic turtles also benefit from small periods of exposure to natural sunlight. However, their living area should have a choice of temperatures so that the turtle may choose-there should be a basking area, a retreat or hiding spot which can be made out of a wooden box which is a little longer on each side than the length of the turtle with one side removed for entrance. It should be placed opposite the basking area.

In winter when the temperature is so low that the turtle is unable to maintain its body temperature, it is forced to stop feeding and retreat to an underground burrow. Hibernation is a dangerous 'period when a lot of turtle die. They need to have stored enough fat to carry them through the winter. If you can keep the temperature normal throughout winter (with an ultra violet lamp) turtles can remain active and continue to feed (though less than normal) through winter. If the turtle shows a disinclination to eat however, it may be genetically conditioned to hibernate.

Aquatic turtles are active swimmers and require lots of room. Adult turtles need a minimum of a ten-gallon tank. The larger tank the better. If your turtle is not a good swimmer, the water in the tank should be deep enough to cover it completely but shallow enough to ensure that it can reach the surface with its nose. If it is a strong swimmer the water should be at least as deep as the shell of the turtle is long.

You need to provide a land area in the tank where the turtle can bask and dry off. This should be located at one end of the tank, big enough for the turtle to bask but not more than one-third of the tank area. You can create this by piling up a number of flat rocks at one end of the tank forming an underwater cave below and protruding above the surface to provide a dry area for basking. Line this with moss to prevent the turtle from injuring itself on the sharp edges as it climbs.

The turtle tank has two separate areas which will need to be heated-the water and the basking areas. The temperature under the basking spot should be 85-90° F. The water should be kept at room temperature-75-78° F is suitable.

It is important to replace the tank water regularly due to waste product build up that produces toxins. For most tanks where the turtle is being fed in another tank, replacing half the water every four weeks is sufficient. The replacement water should be the same temperature as the removed portion. If it is chlorinated, it should be allowed to stand in the open for 24 hours to allow any toxic compounds to dissipate. Aquatic turtles are usually more carnivorous than land turtles. They eat fish, snails and worms in addition to fresh leafy vegetables.

Correct feeding is very important because of their requirement for calcium and vitamins to develop the shell. Most sicknesses are due to insufficient calcium, poor food, lack of vitamins and ultra-violet light. Water turtles need the meat of freshly killed fish and the bones of the vertebral column and other bones that are not sharp. Animal meat and other worms contain too much fat and too little calcium.

I have told you how turtles should be kept, not because I want any of you to keep them but only so that when you do find an injured one in a market or see one improperly kept in a zoo, you can help out with your newfound knowledge of their requirements. Remember it is illegal to buy a turtle. Instead punish its captor and buy the turtle some precious time. In Baneswar, a small village in West Bengal there is a Lord Shiv a Mandir whose priests put out food everyday for turtles who are safe to waddle onto shore for their daily meal. What a wonderful way to worship the lord by caring for his creatures.

In Baneswar, a small village in West Bengal there is a Lord Shiv a Mandir whose priests put out food everyday for turtles who are safe to waddle onto shore for their daily meal. What a wonderful way to worship the Lord by caring for his creatures.

To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

Published Date: Jul 25, 2017 08:50 pm | Updated Date: Jul 25, 2017 08:50 pm

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