The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the black soft shell turtle as Extinct in the Wild (EW) which means wild population of the species are no more present in the world though they could be present in captivity. It comes as a huge surprise therefore when this freshwater turtle was discovered recently in the wetlands of Old Akuk village in Wokha district, Nagaland. The added surprise is that the turtle was never before known to be found in Nagaland.
According to IUCN, the mysterious black soft shelled turtle species is only known to exist in an artificial pond (Baizid Bostami shrine) near Chittagong, Bangladesh. The last assessment year by IUCN was 2002. Now, DNA samples of a turtle captured in Wokha district of Nagaland prove that the turtle is in fact the Black soft shelled turtle and it does exist in the wild!
The turtle trail
Sometime back, Lansothung Lotha, a Forest Ranger under the Department of Forests, Ecology, Environment and Wildlife came upon a photo of a turtle doing the rounds in social media. Curious by the colour and size of the reptile, he decided to investigate further and hopefully rescue the turtle if it was being kept in captivity.
The Forest Ranger contacted Steve Odyuo, founder of Natural Nagas, an NGO working for conservation of wildlife and environment based in Wokha for assistance. They soon found that the turtle had been captured from Wozhu Tsophow wetlands at Old Akuk village area and had been sold to a customer.
Not to let go of the matter so easily, Steve and Lansothung teamed up with other activists and conservationist Suren Enny, Zanbenthung Enny from Wokha town and Nokten, Assistant Veterinary from Animal Health Care, Dimapur. They finally found the customer who had bought the turtle. It was Chonchithung Kikon from Wokha town who wanted to keep the turtle as a pet.
Kikon willingly handed over the turtle to the forest ranger when he realised that his pet could be one of the rarest turtles in the world! It was sent to the Nagaland Zoological Park in Dimapur and kept under the guardian-ship of Thiru, a Zoo Biologist.
The black soft shelled turtle closely resembles other turtle species like the Peacock Soft shell turtle (Nilssoni hurum) and the Indian Soft-shell turtle (Nissoni Gangetica). In order to be sure that what they had discovered was the rare turtle, the team sent a DNA sample to an NGO in Assam. When no results came from them, the samples were also sent to Bangalore organisation that tested and confirmed on 20 March that the DNA was that of the hitherto thought to be Extinct in the Wild – Black soft shelled turtle.
The positive identification is big news for the turtle as it not only proves that it does exist in the wild but also that there could be a wild population in Nagaland.
“It is highly likely that there will be more population of the Black Soft-shell turtles from where it comes from,” an excited Lansothung observed.
Some also say that the villagers of the area often capture the same turtle for consumption and it could be possible that the rare turtle is being caught and eaten unknowingly. It is therefore very important that a survey is carried out in the area and the population census is carried out.
IUCN has last recorded information of the turtle from 2002. Since then, there have been other records and observations too that suggest that the Black soft shelled turtle might be present in the wild in the Brahmaputra river.
In 1999, the founder of the organisation Turtle Island that helps in the conservation and breeding of turtles, Dr. Peter Praschag began a survey of the Brahmaputra river to observe different turtle species. He says,
“I discovered my first, ever-identified in the wild, Black soft-shell turtle. At the fish market in Tinsukia (Assam), I noticed soft shell turtles being offered for human consumption. These turtles were unlike any of the others that I had seen in this region. A few days later, following the stories of the local population, I observed many of the same type of turtle on the edges of the temple pond of the fabled Kamakhya Temple, located on the Nilachal Hill. Suddenly I realized that the turtles offered for human consumption were the same turtles found in the temple pond—the Black soft-shell turtle.”
In India, the Turtle Survival Alliance, has also been involved in the conservation of the turtles in temple grounds. In 2014 the organisation reported that many of the female turtles living in the temple ponds had given birth.
The black soft shelled turtle could be present in areas in the wild that have not been surveyed till date. After this important discovery in Nagaland, it becomes all the more necessary to find the current population of the turtle and save it before it is unknowingly killed for its meat.