Sneha Dharwadkar (left) and Anuja Mital (right) on the field.
Picture a turtle.
It’s likely that the first thing that came to your mind was an animal with its body covered by a shell. Perhaps it had long flippers, a grinning face, and was swimming peacefully in the ocean, eating jellyfish all day. While these sea turtles that most people imagine are truly adorable, we want to talk about a group of equally lovable species that do not live in the ocean. World Turtle Day is celebrated on May 23rd every year, and we have dedicated this month specially to the freshwater turtles and tortoises of India.
Let’s talk turtles!
Freshwater turtles, as their name indicates, prefer a multitude of freshwater sources from rivers, ponds, streams to even sewage tanks! Their bodies have evolved to live in a variety of habitats with the most astonishing array of features such as protruding snouts, soft leathery skin on their shells, and brightly coloured shell patterns of some tortoises. While marine turtles have flippers instead of limbs, freshwater turtles have digits on their limbs, some of them fully webbed. While all turtles prefer some kind of aquatic habitat, tortoises are terrestrial animals. Their shells are more domed and harder compared to turtles. Their limbs are also thick and elephant-like, evolved to walk on the earth.
Turtles and tortoises serve as a critical component of a food web. Freshwater turtles keep the water bodies clean of dead and decaying matter as many of the species are scavengers. Some species of turtles and most tortoises are herbivores or omnivores who help keep the algal blooms in check as well as in seed dispersals! A healthy freshwater ecosystem is incomplete without a turtle.
Turtles and tortoises are also known as Chelonians. The shell of the turtle is a part of its skeleton fused together. Contrary to what many cartoons may show, a turtle (or tortoise) cannot get in and out of its skeleton whenever it pleases. Instead, most turtles and tortoises when threatened, retract their head and limbs into their shell and are safe within a split second! A very cosy home indeed.
India’s rich turtle heritage
India is known to be a mega-biodiverse country, and when it comes to turtles, it continues to amaze. India has 24 species of freshwater turtles, four species of tortoises and five species of marine turtles; it is home to some of the richest turtle hotspots, across north and northeast India. Assam alone harbours 21 species of turtles and tortoises making it the most biodiverse turtle hotspot of the world! Interestingly though, the three species endemic to India, are restricted to rich forested areas of peninsular India and are found nowhere else in the world. The endemic Kerala forest cane turtle and the Travancore tortoise is restricted to southern and central Western Ghats, while the Leith’s softshell turtle is found in the Deccan peninsula.
Despite the diversity and charismatic nature of turtles, they have been so neglected that we don’t know their basic natural history well. Throughout India, the major ecological studies on them can be counted on the tips of our fingers. Sadly, so can the number of turtle biologists, past and present included. People who study herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) called herpetologists or ‘herpers’, rarely ever focus on freshwater chelonians. Their marine counterparts get a lot of fame and glory (and often, funds), that their freshwater counterparts have never known.
Building blocks of citizen science
We started the Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises of India (FTTI) user group on the India Biodiversity Portal (IBP) website, as a means to popularise the ignored turtles and tortoises of India. Both of us are turtle biologists, currently working independently, as no major lab, institute or organisation in India currently works dedicatedly on freshwater turtle research. It began as just a desperate desire to share our love for these animals and has now culminated into India’s only citizen science project on freshwater turtles and tortoises. This one-of-a-kind group has dedicated species pages on all the 28 species in India. Anyone can be a user and can post their pictures to get help on the identification of species. We know now that photos are powerful documentation tools, and accompanied with location details and date of sighting, are a treasure trove of information. As May 23 is celebrated as World Turtle Day every year, we decided to launch a ‘Turtle Spotting Week 2019’ campaign to celebrate! It began on 17 May 2019 and through this campaign, we aim to motivate photographers and citizens to post their pictures on the IBP website or through the Android mobile app. This year, we complete three years of the group with over 220 observations till date from across the country.
We didn’t stop there! To popularise citizen science and provide a platform for turtle researchers and collectives, we started a Facebook page as well. Through the Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises of India page, we also aim to reach out to the general public with interesting turtle facts, information and pictures of turtles they’ve never seen before. We tackle issues such as illegal trade, news updates and current research. The biggest response we get is from people who are shocked to know such beautiful looking turtles exist in this country!
Race against time
We are decades behind in research, awareness and conservation of this group of freshwater turtles, compared to other vertebrate taxa in India. As not much is known about the natural history of most species, management strategies are inadequate, outdated, and to make matters worse the illegal trade of turtles is growing at an unprecedented rate.
Each year, thousands of turtles are illegally smuggled out of the country, often in terribly inhumane ways, stuffed in tiny gunny bags for months on end. Softshell freshwater turtles end up in illegal markets where they are sold and devoured by the end of the day. Many species are protected under the law but few forest officials can even identify turtle species. Little to none training is given to forest officials on how to handle confiscations of illegal turtles and tortoises. Moreover, there isn’t enough information on strategies to rehabilitate them back to the wild. There is very little time left until the end of these species.
To continuing turtle tales…
Through FTTI on Facebook, we hope to build a strong network of turtle experts in different fields ranging from researchers to zookeepers, veterinarians, forest officials and law experts, who can work together in the future beyond the virtual space. The page reaches out to a diverse audience via not only posts on relevant research in the field but also through memes.
Are you a biologist looking for research articles or a palaeontologist interested in turtle fossils? Join us on Facebook, we have got it all! And while Turtle Spotting Week ended on May 23, our citizen science-ing will always go on! Do you have any turtle or tortoise pictures to share? Go on and post it on the India Biodiversity Portal today!
Author bio: Sneha and Anuja are two herpetologists on a mission to study and save the freshwater turtles of India.