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Nilssonia gangetica: A threatened turtles awaits conservation attention

Nilssonia gangetica: A threatened turtles awaits conservation attention

Herpetofaunal species including turtles are yet to receive the conservation attention they deserve, with the only exception being the Gharial considered the tiger of the herpetofauna group. The condition of turtles is pitiful in Nepal. Many of the threats they face originate from anthropogenic sources that include shrinkage of habitat and pollution. Majority of the turtles in Nepal are listed as threatened species in IUCN Red List of Threatened Species including the softshell turtle (Nilssonia gangetica). This is a cause for concern and demands immediate intervention.  

Among the class of reptiles, turtles are the oldest, with 356 species documented globally. Nepal is home to 17 species and 19 sub-species of turtles. Turtles in natural habitat are reported from the forest and wetland of Nepal’s lowland regions. All other species of turtles, with the exception of the elongated tortoise, rely on wetlands and water resources in some way. Softshell turtles inhabit water resources like rivers, lakes, oxbows and ponds. This is one of the largest turtle species found in the Indian subcontinent distributed across Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, Mahanadi and Koshi rivers. The species deposits their eggs on sandbanks and makes use of riverbanks for basking during the summer. Usually they are observed near the Muggers or Gharials on the riverbank of the Tarai region. 

Softshell turtles possess the ability to maintain the water quality of aquatic systems also known as scavengers of aquatic ecosystems by consuming insects /phytoplankton.

Human population density is high in the Tarai region and the cascading impacts are seen on the ecosystem nearby. In recent years, dumping of solid waste in the riverbank is increasing which pollutes the aquatic bodies, thereby decreasing the availability of food for turtles. 

Furthermore, similar to the other turtle species, softshell turtles are experiencing mounting exploitation pressure. The potential of the individuals being captured and consumed before reaching sexual maturity is high in case of turtles, meaning all the turtles including the softshell turtles are more sensitive to exploitation pressure. Myths about medicinal values in turtle shells and consumption of turtle meat by some indigenous groups have also driven the turtle population into extinction. The Hindus, meanwhile, revere turtles as one of the avatars of god Vishnu and believe that keeping the species at home brings good luck and prosperity. This practice has encouraged the practice of snatching turtles from their natural habitat and keeping them as pets. 

In addition, natural predators like dogs, monitor lizards and jackals consume their eggs during nesting period and are responsible for population declination. In most of the cases those species are entangled either in plastic materials or gillnet during fishing. 

Threats like canalization of rivers have also caused problems like habitat fragmentation and shrinkage, disrupting the connection between the river ecosystem and wetlands. This directly disturbs the movement of the species in its habitat, resulting in the loss in genetic variation in species. 

Several anthropogenic pressures are creating stress on softshell turtles and their habitats, pushing them toward extinction. 

However, some initiatives have been working in terms of turtle conservation. TRCC (Turtle Rescue and Conservation Centre) Jhapa and a turtle breeding center in Chitwan have been working to conserve turtle species. However, their efforts are still insufficient to conserve the overall turtle species. Environment Protection and Study Centre (ENPROSC) has initiated Turtle talk Nepal with the aim of promoting the research and conservation of the turtle fauna in Nepal. Every year on May 23 they organize an event where conservationists discuss the wider issue of turtle research and conservation. However, the government’s involvement in turtle conservation activities are almost non-existent. 

Turtles are vital for the balance of the environment and they are facing threats from natural and anthropogenic factors. Thus, it is high time to care about the species and initiate a conservation program.