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Kajalheri, a small beautiful village about 200 kilometers away from India’s national capital New Delhi, is home to 400 Indian softshell turtles.  Like any other Indian village, in Kajalheri you will find banyan trees, mud houses, dusty unpaved roads, lush greenery, and a life free from the hustle and bustle of the city. While strolling across the village you might find a bunch of men chitchatting and sitting next to the five acre pond. They might look like they are relaxing from a busy day or casually sightseeing, but they are actually on their sacred duty to guard 400 softshell turtles.

That’s right; these turtles are living in this village for the last 100 years without any threat and continue to grow, thanks to the rigorous efforts of the locals who make this their top priority. The pond is never left alone and all the villagers take turns every day to be at the site, day or night.

Nilssonia gangetica turtles, which belong to the family of Trionychidae and are unique to South Asia, are listed as Vulnerable in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. With its protruding, tube-like snout and extremely flattened shell, the Ganges soft-shelled turtle is a very peculiar-looking freshwater reptile. They are unfortunately traded in East Asian markets at volumes of 30–40 tons per week, and these facts continue to surge. The Asian food trade is the major contributor, as turtles are captured for their meat, but the shells are also sold as masks to tourists and some are kept as pets. Professional fishing has also become a problem, as river-dwelling turtles become trapped in the fishermen’s nets.

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The Kajalheri residents believe that the turtles’ presence is auspicious for them. They worship them, talk to them, and most importantly of all, save them from poaching and other illegal activities. When a turtle lays eggs on the shore, the villagers make sure that there are no stray animals wandering across and do everything possible to save the eggs.

The local Panchayat in this village doesn’t allow fishing in the pond, and the villagers also make sure not to turn on the high mast lights at night, as they might disorient the turtles. The turtles have a feeding routine, and all of them blissfully run towards the shore when they hear a clapping sound by the villagers. It is indeed a sight to witness! The villagers patrol the pond at night while the school students divide their time during holidays. Some villagers are really old and recall that since they were little boys, they have never left the village premises even for a day, as they couldn’t bear the thought of missing feeding the turtles.

These people are the real heroes of our world and should never be forgotten. We hope this tradition lasts for eternity and these beautiful turtles continue to flourish!

Image source: Prathamesh Desai