Turtle-y Awesome

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 40 No. 11, November 2020

By Rhea Arya and Anuja Mital

To catch a glimpse of sea turtles, you might need to scuba dive or wait at a beach to have an encounter. Freshwater turtles and tortoises, however, can be found in paddy fields, grasslands, forests and even in backyards! 


Did you know that India is a turtle ‘hotspot’? It is one of the three highest turtle-rich countries in the world, with over 38 species and subspecies, including 24 freshwater turtles and five tortoise species. Here are 10 turtle-y awesome facts about some of them!


Softshell turtles in India of the Nilssonia genus grow to massive lengths. For example, the Ganges softshell turtle can grow to one metre long, weighing 40 kg.! These turtles are efficient predators feeding on fish, frogs and birds, and sometimes even scavenge on dead animal matter. Thus they are vital cleaners of freshwater ecosystems.


The black softshell turtle Nilssonia nigricans is one of only two species in the world that is categorised as ‘Extinct in the Wild’ by the IUCN. It was found in temple ponds in Bangladesh, Assam and Tripura.

However, recently, it has been sighted in the wild, and small populations are being monitored along the Brahmaputra river to understand their current population status.


The Indian star tortoise Geochelone elegans is an endangered species because of its high demand in the illegal exotic pet trade across the world, though in India it is protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Its natural habitat is the scrub forests of India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka but it is now more often seen in captivity in zoos, temples, or flats in urban cities!


The Travancore tortoise Indotestudo travancorica has a doppelgänger,
the elongated tortoise Indotestudo elongata! They live in different habitats – the Travancore tortoise in the Western Ghats, and the elongated tortoise in the lower Himalayan foothills across north and
northeast India.


The red-eared slider turtle commonly seen in aquariums and pet shops is an exotic species, not native to India! Such charismatic and cute turtles are gaining popularity as pets in India, but many pet owners are unaware about the proper care and maintenance required. As they grow to large sizes, they are often abandoned in natural wetlands where they become an invasive species!


The impressed tortoise Manouria impressa, discovered in the dense evergreen forests of Arunachal Pradesh in 2019, isn’t named so because it looks ‘impressive’ but because the scutes covering its shell are slightly depressed or concave, and look as if they are ‘impressed upon’.


The Indian narrow-headed softshell turtle Chitra indica has a depressed carapace (top of the shell) with an olive-grey wavy reticulation pattern that allows it to camouflage under the sand underwater with only its narrow head exposed. As an ambush predator it shoots its head out, striking at unsuspecting fish, a natural
spear fishing technique!


Many turtle species show size differences between females and males, but none as extreme as the crowned river turtle Hardella thurjii. The females grow up to three times the size of the males! During the monsoon breeding season, three to four males can be seen swimming around a single female trying to court her.


The peacock softshell turtle Nilssonia hurum is named for its striking, yellow bordered, eye-like markings, that resemble the eye spots on the feathers of the peacock!


Saving Turtles

Rhea Arya and Anuja Mital are part of the Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises Foundation (FTTF), a non-profit working towards the conservation of freshwater chelonians and ecosystems in India through collaborative research, community action, and policy advocacy.

Over 56 per cent of freshwater turtles and tortoises are threatened with extinction due to hunting for meat and the pet trade. The FTTF is working to protect them by training and bringing awareness to local communities, frontline forest staff, researchers and the general public about their importance and how to conserve them. It is working on researching freshwater turtle and tortoise ecology and also has a citizen science platform to map these reptiles in India.

Over the years, the FTTF aims to build a vast network of people who are committed to the study, protection, and conservation of freshwater ecosystems in India.
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