While most of the country is puzzling over exit polls, a few people seem to be engaged in the somewhat serious pursuit of fresh water turtles and tortoises. 23 May is the date of the Lok Sabha Election results in India, but it is also World Turtle Day — a fact known only by a few. Though most people keep track of election trivia, not many of us know that India has 24 species of fresh water turtles and four species of tortoises, of which over 50 percent (i.e. 17) are in the 'threatened' category. Not many can identify them either. Illegal pet trade in turtles, with thousands of Indian Star Tortoises and other species being sent out every year, is further harming their existence.
Spearheading the spread of awareness about turtles and tortoises through various platforms, including a Turtle Spotting Week which kicked off on 17 May, are two young women who are wildlife biologists with a keen interest in turtle conservation and research — Anuja Mital and Sneha Dharwadkar.
India has 24 species of fresh water turtles and four species of tortoises, of which over 50 percent are in the 'threatened' category.
Spotted Pond Turtle (Geoclemys hamiltonii). All photographs courtesy of Anuja Mital
Mital caught her first turtle in the rain forests of Agumbe in Karnataka when she was doing a project on frogs. She realised she didn’t know much about them. “My conscience pricked me,” she says. That was the defining moment in her life when she decided to dedicate herself to turtle research. An independent turtle researcher, she is one of the few in the country who can identify the 24 turtle species and the four tortoise species.
Twenty-five-year-old Mital didn’t stop there. United by a common interest, she and Sneha Dharwadkar, another herpetologist and environment educator from Baroda, Gujarat, decided to give a fillip to the relatively unknown family of turtles and tortoises by hosting a celebration every year with the week-long turtle spotting event. This is the third edition of the event, and a Facebook page hosted by the Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises of India (FTTI) group dedicated to the efforts of many turtle spotters is attracting a lot of posts and views.
Crowned River Turtle (Hardella thurjii)
Fresh water turtles and tortoises are a neglected group in biodiversity conservation, and there is not much research about them.
Since the beginning of the event on 17 May, over 30 posts of turtles being spotted from various parts of the country have been uploaded, says an enthused Mital. There is already an FTII user group on the India Biodiversity Portal (IBP), which has pages dedicated to diverse species, where anyone can register and upload photos. The Turtle Week encourages participants to map, photograph and document as many individuals and species of freshwater turtles and tortoises of India, and to share this information on the India Biodiversity Portal as well. The objective is to bring greater attention to the ecology and conservation status of this group of reptiles.
Fresh water turtles and tortoises are a neglected group in biodiversity conservation, and there is not much research about them, Mital discovered. They are not often spotted and there is little known about the distribution of species. Most herpetologists are clueless when it comes to identifying freshwater turtles or tortoises, she points out. “Our idea in launching Turtle Week was to get people to actively participate by posting pictures and locations, and this would showcase the rich biodiversity. In less than two months after we started the Facebook page, we got more posts per day than we did in the last three years. We hoped that sharing pictures would point to the biodiversity we have,” she says.
Illegal pet trade in turtles, with thousands of Indian Star Tortoises and other species being sent out every year, is further harming their existence.
Hatchling of Indian Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle (Chitra indica)
There are many misconceptions about turtles. People think the shell evolved for protection, but in reality, it acts as a cover when they dig underground, to prevent the ground from caving in on them, explains Mital. Many young people think turtles can come out of their shells and walk around, after watching too many episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, no doubt. Many also confuse fresh water turtles with sea turtles, which are the larger focus of conservation efforts and receive all the funding. Also, fresh water turtles don’t have flippers.
As an independent researcher now, Mital is focusing on the black soft-shelled turtle, which is all but extinct in the wild and mostly seen in captivity in temple ponds in North East India and Bangladesh. But there have been a few sightings in the protected areas of Nameri, Kaziranga, Orang and Manas in Assam and she is hoping to rediscover them in the wild in the course of her study. These turtles can grow to a length of one metre.
Brown Roofed Turtle (Pangshura smithii)
The Turtle Week encourages participants to map, photograph and document as many individuals and species of freshwater turtles and tortoises of India.
Most of the posts during Turtle Week have come from the Western Ghats belt in Kerala, Karnataka and in the north from Uttar Pradesh and Assam — these seem to be the hotspots for the species. The Week has also recorded the first photo of an elongated tortoise from Assam; it is the first observation of its kind.
The other turtle enthusiast, Sneha Dharwadkar, has been involved in rescuing reptiles in and around Baroda and helping the forest department identify rescued turtles and returning them to the wild or finding a place for them in captivity, in case their origins are not known, for over 12 years. “Tens of thousands of star tortoises are smuggled out of the country, and this is only the data from what is confiscated,” she says.
People think turtles' shells evolved for protection, but in reality, they act as a cover when they dig underground.
Assam Leaf Turtle (Cyclemys gemeli)
When you know so little about this species, it becomes difficult to make a plan for conservation or protection. Star tortoises are often kept in water tanks and people don’t realise these are cold-blooded animals. They need basking space, she points out. While the user group on the IBP portal started in 2016, they felt the need for outreach on social media, which led to the Facebook page. When people contribute to a project, they feel a sense of ownership, she says. "Social media is a good outreach platform and we cannot conserve animals without the help of the community. This project can serve the twin goals of reaching out to people and giving them information on species, and also attracting different audiences,” she adds.
So the Facebook page has a Meme Monday, where teenagers are attracted, Turtle Tuesday, where one species is in focus, and a Research Thursday, where new research on turtles is shared. “This came out of our own interest in mapping and documenting turtles, and we are getting people to contribute. It is also a platform for researchers and a small initiative to help in the conservation of turtles," she says.
Tricarinate Hill Turtle (Melanochelys tricarinata). Photograph by Nilanjan Chatterjee
Social media is a good outreach platform, and we cannot conserve animals without the help of the community, say the biologist-duo.
The illegal traffic in tortoises and turtles is huge. Some soft-shelled turtles are sent to Bangladesh for meat, and the Spotted Pond Turtle is sent to South East Asia as pets. There are some Indian species sold as Singapore turtles in the market, and thanks to the pet trade, exotic species like the Red-eared Slider from the Americas are even bred in India and is now an invasive species in ponds where they are released to supposedly curb the dengue mosquito. They compete with local soft shelled species and are causing problems, Dharwadkar points out.
Both Mital and Dharwadkar intend to pursue PhDs in turtles and tortoises and extend their work to conservation. Meanwhile, if you do spot a turtle or a tortoise, or anything resembling them, take a photo and upload or share it to the IBP or the FTII Facebook page. If you can take your mind off the exit polls that is!
Photographs 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 courtesy of Anuja Mital. Header and photograph 6 by Nilanjan Chatterjee