• Temple Pond Modification

    West Bengalen, India

  • Temple Pond Modification

    West Bengalen, India

  • Black soft-shell turtle

    Nilssonia nigricans

TEMPLE POND MODIFICATION IN SOUTH ASIA

Affected species: Black soft-shell turtle (Nilssonia nigricans)
Location: West Bengalen, India

In South Asia, religion exerts a much larger influence on the population than in the West. While legislation and regulations seep slowly into the awareness of the local population, tradition, faith, religious rituals and worship are historically grown and deeply anchored in the soul of the people. Turtles have played an integral role in many religious traditions.

Many Hindu, Buddhist and Islamist temples in these regions have adjacent ponds, where a variety of turtle species have been released, fed, even worshipped and adored. These temple ponds have the potential to act as safe, well-protected sanctuaries and breeding facilities for rare turtle species. Unfortunately, many of the ponds are ill-equipped to provide adequate nesting beaches for breeding; they contain excessive amounts of trash and the turtles are fed an improper diet.

In collaboration with Sundance Biology and the Turtle Conservancy, Turtle Island has already modified a temple pond, according to the needs of the fabled Black soft-shell turtle in West Bengal, India. Locals were hired to build nesting beaches, reinforce failing structural components and remove plastic and trash from the pond.  Religious leaders, who oversee the pond, were educated about the correct diet for the species; and funding was allocated to purchase appropriate food locally. Our goal is to spread this successful model.

In fact, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) still lists Black soft-shelled turtles as “extinct in the wild.”

INTERESTING

The Black soft-shell turtle (Nilssonia nigricans) is known exclusively from one pond at the shrine of Sultan al-Arefin Hazrat Bayazid Bistami in Chittagong, Bangladesh.  This singular population was studied exhaustively by M.F. Ahsan and co-workers, but without ever clarifying the origin of the species. Ahsan and his colleague Saeed even speculate, “Apparently the species has never existed in the wild state, but a semi-captive colony has become established in an enclosed pond of the shrine of Hazrat Sultan Bayazid Bistami of Chittagong.” In fact, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) still lists Black soft-shelled turtles as “extinct in the wild.”

While scientific explanations are lacking, various legends are quoted in recent literature in an attempt to explain the origin of the turtles in the pond of Chittagong. These legends rely upon a high degree of speculation. Ahsan and Saeed present in their work an abbreviated history of the shrine of Bayazid Bistami. According to one of these legends, Sultan al-Arefin Hazrat Bayazid Bistami from Bistam in Iran brought the founding stock of these soft-shell turtles into Chittagong in the 9th century A.D. If this were true, then the genus Nilssonia would show a disjunct distribution of the “ancestral form” of N. nigricans presently living or would have lived, undetected, somewhere in the Middle East.  Currently, no historical or present day records have located this species in this area.

Today, the “holy” turtles of Chittagong are not only regionally and nationally renowned, but are also being promoted internationally as a tourist attraction, being mentioned in many travel guides. Their popularity is exceedingly high as daily masses of travelers and pilgrims visit the holy site.

Ahsan and Saeed write about notable quantities of breads, bananas and meat scraps sold as food for the soft-shell turtles. Women have been observed scooping water to drink from the big, tame animals’ carapace in the hope of increasing fertility and ensuring numerous children.

PROJECT INFORMATION

Peter Praschag:

In 1999, Dr. Peter Praschag (the founder of Turtle Island) embarked on a survey along the Brahmaputra River in northeastern India, in the country of the one horned rhino. Here, he was to have his first big revelation. “I discovered my first, ever-identified in the wild, Black soft-shell turtle. At the fish market in Tinsukia, I noticed soft shell turtles being offered for human consumption. These turtles were unlike any of the others that I had seen in this region. A few days later, following the stories of the local population, I observed many of the same type of turtle on the edges of the temple pond of the fabled Kamakhya Temple, located on the Nilachal Hill. Suddenly I realized that the turtles offered for human consumption were the same turtles found in the temple pond—the Black soft-shell turtle.”

The Kamakhya Temple at Gauhati in Assam, India, is one of the 52 revered pithas (a place sacred to Tantrics and other Indian pilgrams) and is considered to be one of the most important pilgrimage sites. According to Hindu belief, the Goddess Kali committed suicide and her body succumbed to dismemberment by the god Vishnu. Her external genitalia landed at Gauhati and formed the area of Nilachal Hill. The Kamakhya Temple complex is primarily dedicated to the force of creation. This location is hailed as having the highest creative power, and the overwhelming sexual abilities of the God Shiva are praised. Tantrists have appeared here for centuries. The adjacent temple pond is consecrated to Shiva.

There was no doubt in my mind that these exceedingly special soft-shell turtles, located in the holiest site of Hindu Tantrism, belonged to the same species as those from the Islamic Temple pond in the southern Chittagong in Bangladesh. Due to later genetic and morphological studies, we confirmed the validity of the species, thereby successfully confirming my suspicion. On further surveys along the Brahmaputra, remarkably I recorded Nilssonia nigricans in several temple ponds, which are almost all exclusively regarded as important sacred sites. Most importantly, we found the Black soft-shell turtle for the first time in the wild in the Brahmaputra and its tributaries.

In addition to the Shivaistic temple complexes in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar contain countless temple ponds, which can be utilized for turtle conservation and breeding by conducting smaller modifications. Religious centers attract a wide range of the world population and constitute ideal places for increasing awareness. At some temples, the turtles are even venerated and worshipped by the temple staff and visitors from around the globe. Our experience with the temple committees has been exceedingly positive. They have been very accessible and open-minded to suggestions for improvements in their ponds and sometimes help with their own staff or even financially. In West Bengal, we achieved notable successes by insertion of water plants, water airation, conversion to an acceptable diet and long-term removal of plastic waste. The graceful Black soft-shell turtles accepted our nesting beaches and now annually reproduce. Subsequently, releasing ceremonies are planned in protected areas with local schools. Now, our goal is to spread this successful concept to other areas throughout the region.

Did you know ...

Things you should know about this project:

The Black soft-shell turtle

Today, the “holy” turtles of Chittagong are not only regionally and nationally renowned, but are also being promoted internationally as a tourist attraction, being mentioned in many travel guides. Their popularity is exceedingly high as daily masses of travelers and pilgrims visit the holy site.

Conservation Meassures

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) still lists Black soft-shelled turtles as “extinct in the wild.”

Many Hindu, Buddhist and Islamist temples in these regions have adjacent ponds, where a variety of turtle species have been released, fed, even worshipped and adored. These temple ponds have the potential to act as safe, well-protected sanctuaries and breeding facilities for rare turtle species.

OUR CONTRIBUTION

In collaboration with Sundance Biology and the Turtle Conservancy, Turtle Island has already modified a temple pond, according to the needs of the fabled Black soft-shell turtle in West Bengal, India. Our goal is to spread this successful model.

Project-Coordinates.

Chittagong,
Bangladesh

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Photo: Maurice Rodrigues
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