In May 2019, hundreds of fish turned up dead in a river in Kasaragod, northern Kerala, reportedly due to low oxygen levels. Among the mass fish graveyard, sightings of an uncommonly large ama, Malayalam for turtle, were reported. Ayushi Jain, a freshwater turtle researcher, joined a team from the Kerala Forest Research Institute that was there for fish surveys. Together with two local people, she surveyed the section for three days, when they got a glimpse of the elusive ama. A circular snout breached the water surface for about 10 seconds and then submerged itself back into the water again. Jain managed to get head shots of the turtle which she then compared with pictures of a specimen from 2015, provided by a local journalist. Her investigations led her to identify that this was indeed the rare turtle she had been looking for – the Cantor’s giant softshell turtle.
This freshwater turtle species, Pelochelys cantorii, is one of the rarest species of turtles in India and also one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world. It has a large distribution range throughout southeast Asia but is considered rare all across its range. The turtle is extremely shy and a small disturbance in the water or any sound causes it to immediately hide back in the water.
“As the name suggests, it can grow exceptionally large exceeding one metre (over 3 feet) in length and can weigh more than 100 kilograms,” said Jain. “In the past 45 years, records of the species in India have been scarce. Based on published scientific reports, there are only 10 individuals recorded in the country.”
Twenty-four-year-old Jain, who has been researching the Cantor’s giant softshell in Kerala, started her expedition a year ago with very limited knowledge about the turtle, given its rarity and hence lack of data on it. She is supported by the National Geographic Photo Ark EDGE Fellowship, which facilitates research for conservation of understudied species which are on the brink of extinction, and she is externally affiliated with the Wildlife Institute of India.
Aside from Kerala, where the turtle was last spotted in India, the past records of the species are from Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, the latest recorded sighting of a Cantor’s giant softshell turtle was a decade ago, in 2010, where it was reported from both Kuttiyadi and Valapattinam rivers in Kerala, by Zoological Survey of India scientist Muhamed Jafar Palot and team. More recently, in late 2019, a media report indicated that the species had been spotted at Varkala, but there have been no published scientific records on the turtle sightings, since ZSI’s report.
“I focussed my project primarily in Kerala because that’s where the most recent record, and in fact the most number of the species records, were from. I knew Kerala would my best bet if I were to find the turtle,” said Jain, who is from Uttar Pradesh and has recently completed a Master’s degree in ecology and environmental science from Pondicherry University.
With regular assistance from Palot of Zoological Survey of India, Jain, along with her field assistant Mithun M.V. have been interviewing local people and finding leads in and around the rivers in Kasaragod and Kozhikode districts.
“When I started, it was just with hope that I would be able to work with the local community to form a network to protect the species and the habitat,” she said. “The initial surveys in three river sites in Kerala led me to my specific project site where finally I sighted the turtle in May 2019.”
The cleaner of the rivers
It is listed as a priority species for conservation under Edge of Existence (EDGE), a programme by Zoological Society of London (ZSL), as there is no ongoing conservation work on this species in Peninsular India. “The EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) programme prioritises species that have a high amount of evolutionary history and are threatened with extinction. EDGE species have few extant relative and thus, if we were to lose them, there would not be anything like them,” said Francoise Cabada, EDGE of Existence Programme Marine Biologist, Conservation and Policy, Zoological Society of London.
One of the reasons to care about freshwater turtles is their ecological role in cleaning rivers. Softshell turtles scavenge on dead and decaying matter and contribute to maintaining clean aquatic ecosystems. “The incident that happened in May, of mass fish deaths, it was because of the high biological demand in the water. If there are enough turtles, our rivers would be healthier,” said Jain.
There are 24 species of freshwater turtles in India. The Cantor’s giant softshell turtle belongs to the genus Pelochelys which has three extant softshell species. Of these, Pelochelys cantorii or the Cantor’s giant softshell turtle is native to southeast Asia while the other two are primarily found in New Guinea. The three species diverged from turtles over 40 million years ago and the softshells taxonomic family, Trionychidae, dates back to more than 140 million years ago to the era of dinosaurs.
The species is known from a variety of different lowland aquatic habitats such as lakes, rivers, streams and swamps, and estuaries. It eats fish, shrimps, crabs and molluscs, in addition to vegetation. However, the information on the abundance of the species, nesting and breeding ecology is still very scarce in India and through her project, Jain hopes to collect baseline information to be able to protect the critical habitat and the existing population of the species.
Regarding the relevance of this one of its kind project in India, Cabada, who is also supervising Jain’s research, said that the project can be used as a model for research on many other freshwater species in India. She added that the key to this project is “well-planned groundwork centred in the communities and the local knowledge; which oftentimes must be the first step when working with elusive species which have not been reported in a long time.”
Efforts in Cambodia bring the species back from the brink
The Cantor’s giant softshell turtle is currently reported in around 11 countries and is native to southeast Asia.
Also known as the Asian giant softshell turtle, it is among the most endangered freshwater turtles and tortoises in the world, according to a 2018 report by the Turtle Conservation Coalition, a partnership of turtle conservation organisations. About half of all turtle and tortoise species in the world are threatened with extinction, notes the report, with many of these species at risk in Asia.
Historically, Pelochelys cantorii ranged throughout the great lowland rivers, deltas and estuaries of tropical Asia, from India to southern China, the Philippines, Borneo and Sumatra. Being in proximity to human settlements, anthropogenic activities have impacted the survival of the species. In India, according to the report by Palot and C. Radhakrishnan in 2011, the species is threatened by poaching for its meat and habitat destruction and alteration.
Among the most viable populations of the turtle is reported in Cambodia in parts of the Mekong river and its tributaries. Som Sitha, who is working on conservation of the species as part of a project by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Cambodia, estimates that there are less than 8,000 individuals of the Cantor’s giant softshell turtle across the Mekong and tributaries, but no detailed survey on a population estimate for the species in Cambodia has been done so far.
In Cambodia, the main threats to this species survival is the illegal collection of eggs, live individuals for trading and consumption, Sitha, the Landscape Technical Advisor with WCS, told Mongabay-India in an email interview. “Habitat loss (flooded forest) and intensive collection of sand are also the main threats to the species. The biggest threat to the species would be the hydro-electric dam along the Cambodian Mekong River if that would happen in the future. The lack of local awareness, population increase and local poverty is also causing the species decline in a way that people tend to collect anything to supplement their family rather than conserving,” he said.
WCS has been working to protect the Cantor’s giant softshell turtles in Cambodia through conservation activities such as awareness and outreach programmes, advocacy on government policy, especially on sand mining along the river system, community consultations to establish legal Community Fisheries along the Mekong River and conservation incentives through the livelihood improvement to reduce threats to turtles and gather participation from local communities into turtle conservation.
Sitha, who has been informally in touch with Jain to share notes on the conservation of the turtle in their respective regions, notes the importance of collaboration. “It is very important that the range countries are working together ensure the survival of the species through scientific research and monitoring, exchange field trip and training/capacity building,” he said.
Cabada, who has been working with international researchers as part of the EDGE program, believes that the first step for any international collaboration would be, “to establish if we are in fact dealing with the same species, then updating national ranges and population(s) status”. “This is the minimum information needed to plan a comprehensive collaborative programme to secure the species persistence.”
Getting local communities involved
Since the Cantor’s giant softshell turtle is so rare, Jain was not hopeful about spotting it during her two-year research project in Kerala. Her initial aim was to collect information about sightings from the local community residing in close proximity to the river, to raise awareness of the species among the local people and making them part of conservation of the species, which would have a long-term impact on the population of the endangered species. “The role of the key informants and local people in any conservation activities to be conducted are extremely crucial given their knowledge and traditional practices with respect to Cantor’s giant softshell turtle,” said Jain.
Her initial surveys concluded that mostly the people living and working in the closest proximity to the river are aware of the presence of the species. “It is now clear that the species has historically occurred in this river however the frequency of sighting of the species had reduced over the past two decades,” said Jain. “We are still gathering information from locals which will help us maximise our time and resources for the species survey in the river system.”
While projects like these take assistance from citizen scientists, the reports, while important for leads, need to be verified. “A similar species – Leith’s softshell turtle (Nilsonnia leithii) – also occurs in the area. It is not as big, but for the layperson, it is not easy to differentiate between the species. So when I get reports from the local community we make sure to verify the data,” said Jain. “In the future, conservation and protection can work with the involvement of multiple agencies including the forest department and government for action based on inputs by the local communities and researchers.”
“Starting the groundwork directly with local people is extremely important in conservation interventions,” noted Cabada. “This is true not only because of the information that can be retrieved about the species but also because most of the threats for the species will probably be related to human activities and without their engagement, any attempt to abate these threats will fail. Also, as conservationists, we need to consider, assess and plan for mitigation of any possible impact our projects/interventions might have on these communities. For that, we need to work with other fields in an interdisciplinary manner.”
From his experience across different conservation landscapes in Cambodia and the current turtle conservation landscape, Sitha emphasises that it is vital to work with local communities to conserve threatened turtle species like the Cantor’s giant softshell. “Local people are the key players in resource utilisation. Currently, we get their participation by providing conservation incentives and in return they conserve turtles, fisheries resources and associated habitat,” said Sitha who has been part of efforts to encourage local communities to protect the resources themselves by forming legally recognised patrol teams for regular monitoring, and also creating by-laws, regulations and a community boundary.
As the next step in her project in Kerala, Jain hopes to conduct awareness camps for the local communities and eventually build an alert network for long-term conservation of the Cantor’s giant softshell turtle.
“I have been working to create an alert network with the local community to record any sightings or by-catches of the species. Recently, I received a by-catch report of juvenile turtle by a local fisherman. We immediately got to the site of report and after taking the morphometric measurements, the turtle was safely released back into the river. This report confirms the presence of the breeding populations and gives us new hope for the survival of this majestic species in India,” said Jain.
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