Seventeen years ago, the black softshell turtle was declared extinct in the wild – gone from its entire range in India and Bangladesh. But due to the efforts of a few Hindu temple caretakers, the turtles are bouncing back.
Once plentiful in the northeastern state of Assam, the turtles’ numbers diminished because of loss of habitat and exploitation as a food source. The loss of population was so significant the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared them extinct in the wild in 2002.
But a tiny population of turtles still lived on in the ponds surrounding a few Hindu temples, including the Hayagriva Madhav temple and the Bayazid Bastami shrine.
The residents and caretakers of the temples believed the turtles were reincarnates of Hindu god Vishnu and felt called to nurture them.
Turtle eggs were collected and cared for by hand until hatching.
“The population of the turtle in Assam has gone down by a great extent,” Jayaditya Purkayastha of Help Earth told AFP. “So we thought we needed to intervene and do something to save the species from extinction.”
One of the ponds where the turtles were found is in Hayagriva Madhab Temple at Hajo. Purkayastha said he and other rescuers “released 35 hand-reared turtle hatchlings, including 16 black softshells, in the Haduk Beel (wetland) of Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary.”
Purkayastha called the effort a milestone in turtle conservation. He hopes to expand the reintroduction program to other temples around the country.
Thanks to divine intervention, and the undying faith of temple caretakers, these rare turtles are now thriving in their own natural habitats.