KATHMANDU — In 2002, the black softshell turtle was declared extinct in the wild — not a difficult assessment to make, given that, back then, the only known population of the species was in a pond at a Sufi shrine in Bangladesh. It beat that rap when, that same year, researchers found the animals in similar ponds at temples in northeast India and along the Brahmaputra River that runs through both countries.
Twenty years on, the species, Nilssonia nigricans, has staged another miracle: it has now been spotted in Nepal — a development that experts say bodes well for its conservation.
“We discovered the species at the Betana Wetland in southern Nepal,” said Tapil Prakash Rai, a co-author of the report detailing the finding in the October edition of the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation of Nepal (Arco-Nepal) newsletter. Rai said the turtles were first spotted by Arco-Nepal chair Hermann Schleich, who has worked in the country for three decades. German-born Schleich is, fittingly enough for the once “extinct” black softshell turtle, a paleo-herpetologist: an expert in extinct reptiles and amphibians.
With the discovery, the number of turtle species found in Nepal has gone up to 17.
The enigmatic black softshell turtle has long been associated with the sacred. Some Hindus believe it to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu; at the Bayazid Bastami shrine in Bangladesh, where the population today is in the hundreds, it’s thought that the shrine’s namesake Persian Sufi mystic used divine powers to turn evil spirits into black turtles.
“As they are so rare, only a handful of people can identify them,” Rai told Mongabay, adding that’s why the discovery remained under wraps for six years. Rai said Schleich recently showed images of the turtles to Peter Praschag, the new Arco-Nepal president and a leading expert in the species. Praschag was also one of those who debunked the species’ extinction with his discoveries in India and the Brahmaputra.
He positively identified the turtles from Schleich’s images as the black softshell turtle, Rai said. According to the study, Praschag also spotted the turtles in the Meghna and Karnaphuli rivers in Bangladesh.
On the IUCN Red List, the black softshell turtle is categorized as critically endangered, on the assessment that the population has declined by more than 80% over the course of three generations, or since 2000. The IUCN listing also identifies the turtle’s range as being in India and Bangladesh, but not Nepal.
The Betana Wetland in Nepal’s Morang district spans 5.5 hectares (13.6 acres) and is surrounded by a community-managed forest of about 175 hectares (432 acres). The area is known as a refuge for migratory birds as well as various species of fish.
“I visited the wetland again recently to take more photos and I sent them to Dr. Schleich before we made the formal announcement through our newsletter,” Rai said. “We saw turtles of all ages from hatchlings to juveniles and adults in the water. This shows that we have a breeding population.”
The discovery provides a ray of hope for the species, Rai said, as it expands its known distribution from India and Bangladesh to Nepal. “We need to make the community aware of the importance of the turtle so that they can help conserve them,” he added.
But turtles in general face a host of threats in Nepal, said Ashmita Shrestha from the NGO Greenhood Nepal. She said many residents of Nepal’s southern plains, known as the Tarai region, aren’t aware of the importance of turtles, even those that are threatened.
“We can see that people kill the softshell turtles for meat as they catch them in nets when fishing. We also see, especially along the Koshi River in Nepal, people selling small hatchlings for people to take home as pets,” Shrestha told Mongabay. In addition, climate change is drying up the wetlands in the Terai, while the heavy use of pesticides is contaminating the water, she said.
Rai said developments in the vicinity of the Betana Wetland, including the construction of a mini zoo by the local community, may also have severe impacts on the turtle population.
The IUCN Red List identifies other threats to the species in its previously known habitats, including the possibility of trafficking: “[S]ustained, targeted egg collection for local consumption as well as trade has been documented in the Brahmaputra basin, affecting this species among others.”
For the semi-captive populations in the ponds in Bangladesh and India, key threats are fungal infestation and inbreeding, as the turtles live in congested areas and are dependent on humans for food. These particular threats are unlikely to emerge in the Betana Wetland, researchers say, as this is a natural habitat of the species.
The discovery also provides an incentive for local forest user groups to conserve the turtle to attract tourists to the area, Rai said. This could help raise a sustainable population in the long run, he added.
Praschag, P., Rai, T. P., & Schleich, H. (2022). First record of the critically endangered black softshell turtle, Nilssonia nigricans (ANDERSON, 1875) for Nepal. Arco-Nepal Newsletter, 24, 15-22. Retrieved from http://www.arco-nepal.de/ARCONewsletter24.pdf
This article by Abhaya Raj Joshi was first published by Mongabay.com on 21 November 2022. Lead Image: A black softshell turtle photographed in Nepal’s Betana Wetland . Image courtesy of Tapil Prakash Rai.
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