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Near-extinct turtles thriving in temple ponds

By SIVASISH THAKUR

GUWAHATI, June 23 � Not many would know that ponds in various temples and shrines of the State shelter wide-ranging turtle species. Of the 29 species of freshwater turtles identified in India, 20 are found in Assam, and temple ponds are known to house a dozen species.

Even the extremely rare black soft-shelled turtle � categorized as extinct in wild by IUCN � finds a secure home in a few temple-ponds of Assam.

As most of the turtles found in Assam are threatened, the temple-ponds are contributing significantly towards their conservation. Conservationists, however, feel that there is a need to adopt scientific measures for ensuring long-term survival of the turtles in these habitats.

While many temple-ponds and campuses lack adequate resting and breeding space for the turtles, accumulation of organic as well as non-biodegradable waste in the water remains another problem. Feeding of the turtles on unnatural food, poor water quality, and overpopulation, too, have been major constraints.

�While the temple-ponds are doing a commendable job in turtle conservation, there are several problem areas requiring scientific intervention. Turtles have little breeding space in many ponds and they are habituated to a diet that is not natural for them. Several ponds are overpopulated but releasing the turtles in the wild will be difficult as they are accustomed to an unnatural diet,� Jayaditya Purkayastha of Help Earth said.

Help Earth recently conducted a survey on the status of turtles in eight temple-ponds of Assam. All the selected water-bodies, i.e., Athkhelia (Golaghat), Barokhelia (Golaghat), Deopani (Diphu), Gorokhiya Than (Sorbhog), Kamakhya (Guwahati), Madhab Puskar (Hajo), Nagsankar (Tezpur) and Ugratara (Guwahati) had good turtle populations but had more or less the same problems.

�Beautification of temple-ponds by concretizing the banks is damaging for long-term conservation of turtles. The resting and breeding grounds in and around the ponds need to be protected,� Purkayastha said, adding that lack of resting ground was also leading to a high incidence of in-fighting among the turtles.

The pond at the celebrated Shakti shrine Kamakhya was found to have a very high turtle population, with as many as 45 sightings a day. The species found included Nilssonia gangetica, Nilssonia hurum, Nilssonia nigricans, Pangshura sylhetensis, Pangshura tecta, Pangshura tentoria, and Geoclemys hamiltonii. Secondary data from the residents put the figure to be around 250 individuals.

�The pond water did not appear very clean mainly due to litter of non-biodegradable materials such as plastics as well as bits of food articles offered by the devotees to the turtles. Owing to this the pond water emits a foul odour on closer observation. The colour of the pond water is muddy brown and it is often coated by a greenish algal layer,� Purkayastha said.

Adequate basking place for the turtles in the form of logs, branches of trees and rock surfaces was found bordering the pond as well as on the water surface. The average turbidity of the pond water showed it to be turbid or nil transparency at 44cm depth.

�The amount of BOD was 6mg/l indicating a certain degree of pollution in the sample. This pond is very significant in terms of its turtle fauna, especially because it is one of the very few places where soft-shelled turtle (Nilssonia nigricans) is housed,� Purkayastha said.

The Hoygrib Madhab temple pond was by far the most species rich among the temple water-bodies, recording 12 species. �Since this pond requires more attention and detailed study, we have entrusted a person with the responsibility of gathering regular information concerning turtle behaviour and collecting basic physiochemical parameters of the pond,� he said.

The Ugratara temple pond also showed a very high density of turtles in a small area. There was no proper breeding site for the turtles. �The perimeter of the pond concretized, leaving no space for the turtles to lay eggs. Straying turtles are also extremely vulnerable to road accidents and capture for consumption,� Purkayastha said, adding that Help Earth provided a breeding spot for the turtles, by using boulders, bricks and river sand.

As large-scale unsustainable fishing has taken a heavy toll on the region�s turtle population, the temple-ponds hold hope for the future and may be developed as a source for turtle breeding and release in the wild.

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Near-extinct turtles thriving in temple ponds

GUWAHATI, June 23 � Not many would know that ponds in various temples and shrines of the State shelter wide-ranging turtle species. Of the 29 species of freshwater turtles identified in India, 20 are found in Assam, and temple ponds are known to house a dozen species.

Even the extremely rare black soft-shelled turtle � categorized as extinct in wild by IUCN � finds a secure home in a few temple-ponds of Assam.

As most of the turtles found in Assam are threatened, the temple-ponds are contributing significantly towards their conservation. Conservationists, however, feel that there is a need to adopt scientific measures for ensuring long-term survival of the turtles in these habitats.

While many temple-ponds and campuses lack adequate resting and breeding space for the turtles, accumulation of organic as well as non-biodegradable waste in the water remains another problem. Feeding of the turtles on unnatural food, poor water quality, and overpopulation, too, have been major constraints.

�While the temple-ponds are doing a commendable job in turtle conservation, there are several problem areas requiring scientific intervention. Turtles have little breeding space in many ponds and they are habituated to a diet that is not natural for them. Several ponds are overpopulated but releasing the turtles in the wild will be difficult as they are accustomed to an unnatural diet,� Jayaditya Purkayastha of Help Earth said.

Help Earth recently conducted a survey on the status of turtles in eight temple-ponds of Assam. All the selected water-bodies, i.e., Athkhelia (Golaghat), Barokhelia (Golaghat), Deopani (Diphu), Gorokhiya Than (Sorbhog), Kamakhya (Guwahati), Madhab Puskar (Hajo), Nagsankar (Tezpur) and Ugratara (Guwahati) had good turtle populations but had more or less the same problems.

�Beautification of temple-ponds by concretizing the banks is damaging for long-term conservation of turtles. The resting and breeding grounds in and around the ponds need to be protected,� Purkayastha said, adding that lack of resting ground was also leading to a high incidence of in-fighting among the turtles.

The pond at the celebrated Shakti shrine Kamakhya was found to have a very high turtle population, with as many as 45 sightings a day. The species found included Nilssonia gangetica, Nilssonia hurum, Nilssonia nigricans, Pangshura sylhetensis, Pangshura tecta, Pangshura tentoria, and Geoclemys hamiltonii. Secondary data from the residents put the figure to be around 250 individuals.

�The pond water did not appear very clean mainly due to litter of non-biodegradable materials such as plastics as well as bits of food articles offered by the devotees to the turtles. Owing to this the pond water emits a foul odour on closer observation. The colour of the pond water is muddy brown and it is often coated by a greenish algal layer,� Purkayastha said.

Adequate basking place for the turtles in the form of logs, branches of trees and rock surfaces was found bordering the pond as well as on the water surface. The average turbidity of the pond water showed it to be turbid or nil transparency at 44cm depth.

�The amount of BOD was 6mg/l indicating a certain degree of pollution in the sample. This pond is very significant in terms of its turtle fauna, especially because it is one of the very few places where soft-shelled turtle (Nilssonia nigricans) is housed,� Purkayastha said.

The Hoygrib Madhab temple pond was by far the most species rich among the temple water-bodies, recording 12 species. �Since this pond requires more attention and detailed study, we have entrusted a person with the responsibility of gathering regular information concerning turtle behaviour and collecting basic physiochemical parameters of the pond,� he said.

The Ugratara temple pond also showed a very high density of turtles in a small area. There was no proper breeding site for the turtles. �The perimeter of the pond concretized, leaving no space for the turtles to lay eggs. Straying turtles are also extremely vulnerable to road accidents and capture for consumption,� Purkayastha said, adding that Help Earth provided a breeding spot for the turtles, by using boulders, bricks and river sand.

As large-scale unsustainable fishing has taken a heavy toll on the region�s turtle population, the temple-ponds hold hope for the future and may be developed as a source for turtle breeding and release in the wild.

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