Turtles came into existence about 220 million years ago, being the first of the living reptilian group to appear in fossil records. On this planet, turtles and tortoises are among the most threatened groups of vertebrates. Of the 328 species of turtles worldwide, more than half are facing the threat of extinction. Apart from environmental factors and habitat degradation turtles are also facing an additional threat of illegal trade and human consumption. They are being used as pets and are also part of traditional Chinese medicines. In India, 29 species of turtles have so far been recorded, out of which 20 species are found in Assam. Unfortunately, 90% of the turtles in Assam are threatened.

One of these species is the Black Softshell Turtle or Bostami turtle (Nilssonia nigricans). This particular species was considered officially ‘extinct in the wild’ in 2002 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Two years after this announcement, some turtles were found in an ancient pond in the Hayagriva Madhav temple in Assam. Since then, this centuries old temple’s caretaker with his hard work and perseverance has led to a miraculous comeback of the previously extinct species.

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Suitable sand-banks have been created in the corners of the pond for turtle basking and nesting. The kind care taker of the temple assisted by temple staff and local NGOs carefully collects eggs laid by the turtles on the sandy banks of the pond. These eggs are then later transferred to an incubator.

Earlier this year in January, the first batch of 16 turtle hatchlings that were hand reared at the temple were released to a wildlife sanctuary. These turtles are revered in Indian mythology and are considered reincarnation of the Immortal Lord Vishnu. Hundreds of devotees worship and feed them during their visit to the temple.

These freshwater turtle species are protected under India’s 1972 Wildlife Protection Act, with most of them listed under Schedule 1, which is supposed to give them complete protection. They were once abundant in Assam but they were a popular local food and now much of their habitat has been destroyed.

Despite the stringent laws, these turtles and their parts are smuggled across the porous borders that India shares with Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Due to lack of enforcement, they have reached Asian markets like China, Hong Kong and Japan where they are in huge demand. A high degree of protection is needed for the remaining wild populations, including strictly enforced laws and anti-poaching programs.

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