Indian softshell turtles are in peril, thanks to local myths about the use of their body parts, as well as an international poaching network that feeds traditional Chinese practices. Softshell turtles, which get their name due to lack of scales on their outer shell or carapaces, are found in lakes and ponds as well as in the river systems of the Indus and Ganga drainages across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
They are nature’s little helpers in keeping the rivers and waterbodies clean, breaking down rotting organic matter in lakes, ponds and rivers including dead bodies of humans and animals. However, the brisk trade in their body parts means they are disappearing from the ecosystems where they were once familiar.
A smuggler can get thousands of dollars for a few turtles. One driver is the pet trade. Given their peaceable demeanour, and often beautiful shells, turtles are highly sought after pets in developed countries. A second driver, in Asia, is the lure of traditional Chinese medicine, which is dependent on specific body parts of specific animals.
The turtle, given its longevity, is considered special, and thus its parts are expensive. Both of these forms of trade, as well as poaching for eating by local people, have led to the decline in population of softshell turtles in India.
Out of 28 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises in India, 15 are found in the Indo-Gangetic belt, making it one of the five turtle priority regions in India. (The other four are Assam and the Brahmaputra region, the Western Ghats in Peninsular India, Odisha and West Bengal in eastern India, and the terai region along the foothills of the Himalayas). The dangers of poaching and habitat destruction are so high that 17 freshwater turtle species are facing threats in India. Ten of the species under threat are endemic to the Indo-Gangetic plains.
“Earlier there used to be many turtles in the river but now you [can] find one or two only,” said Vishwanath Haldar, a fisherman at Ramghat, located on the banks of river Yamuna in Delhi. He used local terms such as “barah paon” (12 claws) and “kaath” (wood) to describe existing species in the slightly clearer stretch of Yamuna near Delhi. He was likely referring to the Indian softshell turtle (nilssonia gangetica) and the Indian flapshell turtle (lissemys punctata), two species of softshell turtles that are commonly seen in the Indo-Gangetic plains but vanishing rapidly.