Protection of Indian Roofed Turtle (Pangshura tecta)

Lota Devi Pond, Jalpaiguri District, West Bengal

The Lotadevi temple pond Turtles, as SPOAR discovered:

The members of SPOAR (Society for Protecting Ophiofauna and Animal Rights) found out that a tiny population of small sized turtles were living in a local temple pond, just outside of Jalpaiguri town. A team of 7 members visited the pond and was horrified by the condition of the turtle habitat. The pond water was highly contaminated and there were no security of the turtles from poaching, hunting and/or collecting of this Schedule-I species. As we discovered, this temple pond was inhabited by 14-20 Indian Roofed Turtles (Pangshura tecta, Grey 1831). This is the only pond now where the Pangshura tecta or Indian Roofed Turtles are found in Jalpaiguri district, except the protected forest areas. When asked, locals confirmed attempts of stealing these turtles for meat and large scale wastage of turtle eggs in the surrounding areas every year. SPOAR members contacted WTI (Wildlife Trust of India) right away and expressed their concern. Representatives from WTI visited the Lotadevi temple pond in the month of February, 2018. They observed the condition of the turtle pond and the threats this tiny turtle population was facing. Almost immediately, the project was granted under RAP (Rapid Action Project) program. The temple of Lotadevi Kali Mata is situated near Karala Valley more of Jalpaiguri town. It’s partly isolated from human habitats by the Karala river. Every year, during Maghi Purnima, thousands of devotees cross this river to perform the rituals which fills the pond with wastes, oils and decomposing food items. If not protected, this species could have gone locally extinct within a few years.

Beginning the Project under RAP:

The project formally began with an inaugural program on 8th April, 2018, at Lotadevi temple premises with founding the fencing gate. We planned the whole program to spread awareness about turtles, their lifestyle, habits and habitats, roles in an ecology and threats they face. The local Panchayat Pradhan, Panchayat members, local club members, temple committee members, forest officials, members of SPOAR along with members of other non-government organisations of Jalpaiguri were present at the program. But, most importantly, we could reach a good number of people from local tea estate and local villages through this event.

We made sure local news channels and print media covers the event and publish the news focusing the objectives of the project and the significance of such conservation effort.

Construction Initiatives of the Lotadevi Turtle Project

First Step of the Initiative: Fencing the Turtle habitat

The fencing of the turtle pond was the most vital part of all the project initiatives. The entire pond and some buffer area has been fenced with concrete poles with barb-wires. The fence needed more area coverage to provide maximum security and safety from any kind of human interference at the nesting beach. So, that particular side has an additional fencing of agro-net. The fence gate is made of mild steel. One pillar has tiles containing the project name mentioning the species of turtles living in this pond. The pillars and the poles of the fencing was engineered to stay put in the heavy monsoon days, not to mention the flood situations. The barb-wires were cross-lined to restrict entry of people and cattle within the pond area.

Second Step of the Initiative: Building the temporary tank:

A temporary tank was prepared beside the existing pond so the main pond can be restored. A 565 sqft (approximate) area became new home for the turtles and later was merged with the original pond to create a bigger space for the turtles. To nourish the water content and the soil, some cow dung and limestone was added to the base of the tank. Semi-aquatic and aquatic plants (Pistia sp., lemna sp., Ipomoea raptans, spirulina, azolla, etc.) were introduced to create the natural plant based food source and to promote a suitable habitat. Local fishes (Danio, etc.) and shrimps were also introduced to supply animal protein source and to balance the natural diet of the turtles living in this pond. Both phyto and zoo planktons were added to the water body.

Third Step of the Initiative: Building the Breeding/Nesting beach:

The turtles of Lotadevi temple pond didn’t have any nesting area, beach or ground for successful hatching of eggs and maintain their natural population growth rate. The lack of nesting space forced these turtles to move out of the pond and lay eggs in open grounds wherever they found minimal preconditions for hatching. The members of temple committee, local people and the local club members mentioned that turtles eggs has been found in the temple ground where the “Maghi Purnima Mela” is organised every year. Sometimes people found turtle eggs closer to the adjacent Karala river bank. Most of the times these eggs remained in unsuitable conditions and must have failed to hatch successfully, creating a drastic drop in the number of these turtles here.

To create the nesting beach, an area at the north east side of the pond was excavated. The vacate place was then filled in with small grain sand suitable for nesting. The sandy beach has slope for the turtles to climb on easily. Some trees and small bushes nearby gives shade and also created some hide for the turtles.

Fourth Step of the Initiative: Increasing the area of the existing pond & dredging:

The next big step was to excavate the adjoining areas of the main pond to create a bigger water body for the turtles. The pond location is adjacent to Karala River and ground water fills in very easily whenever any excavation work is done here. The workers had to move the wet soil to excavate the pond perimeter by almost 1ft deep. While extending the base of the pond, a ridge was kept to separate the main pond from the extended area, which was removed later. The north side of the pond was cleared a little to make a basking ground for the turtles.

Fifth Step of the Initiative: A concrete dustbin for wastes:

This temple is visited by thousands of people throughout the year. The highest in the month of February and March during “Shiva Ratri” and “Maghi Purnima”. The gathering also accumulates a huge number of waste materials, most of which is plastic. To keep the area free from pollution, the dustbin has been built to hold the wastes until disposed of safely. Earlier we found that people threw wastage in the pond to perform the rituals, polluting the water severely. Now, people have this dustbin to throw away the wastes.

During the yearly festival, 2019, we were astonished to see the amount of waste this dustbin collected. And, it was a huge relief for us and for the turtles, not to have to worry about the polluted water anymore. People were also encouraged to use this bin by posters and banners put up everywhere in the temple premises. Temple committee also helped us a lot in this regard, they made announcements from time to time requesting people to keep the temple premises clean and to use the bin to dump the wastes.

Sixth Step of the Initiative: Building the “Kurma Avatar” Temple:

The construction of the small “Kurma Avatar” temple was considered to merge the conservation efforts with people’s faith. The idol of the “Kurma Avatar” was casted by the artist himself as there aren’t any dice available. This process required a lot of time and was much expensive than was thought of. The idol of “Kurma” is made of fibre and is painted with antique brass finish. The lower body of the idol is a turtle, depicting Vishnu’s incarnation to save the world and the upper body is Lord Vishnu himself appearing with four arms. The idol sits on a small platform raised on a pole. There’s a round tank beneath the idol so that puja offerings can store on that tank. There’s a pipeline which drains the liquid from this tank to a filter pit just behind the Kurmavatar alter. This pit with layers of charcoals, sand and stones filters the water and channels it to the Karala river. This simple mechanism helps keep the pollution level low.

On 26th August, 2018 a puja was performed to establish the Kurma Dev or the Turtle god. Invitations were sent to the Forest Department, local Panchayat, local Clubs, villagers and our members who live far away. The local community joined in the festivities with their friends and family in a large number which was really important for us to make this project a success. We shed some light on the importance of conservation and its ancient link with religion. It felt great to see the people understand the significance of these turtles in our environment. People’s belief in Turtle God made this message reach them well.

Advocacy and Awareness Initiatives of Lotadevi Turtle Project

Community Involvement:

We began communicating with local people to understand their views on the problems of these pond turtles before the project started. Most of the people were indifferent at the beginning, giving a yes on saving the turtles only on the basis of the “Sacred” reputation of the ones living in this temple pond. But after much advocacy on the degrading pond ecosystem and how it can completely wipe out the turtles here, local people agreed to help our cause.

The “Lotadevi Mandir Committee” members approached us with a promise to cooperate in every positive measures we take for the turtles. Conservation, to them, wasn’t a clear concept especially for a few small turtles. Nonetheless, they tried to keep the pond safe as it was considered “Holy”. With the inauguration of the project and watching us protecting and upgrading the habitat, the committee members and local people got slowly involved in the initiatives. Local people and committee members took up the job to aware more people about the significance of the turtles and how to keep the environment free from pollutants. During their yearly festival in 2019, the temple committee put up banners and signboards requesting the visitors to maintain cleanliness, to offer their rituals at the Kurma temple only, and not to disturb the temple turtles.

Our team interviewed local people to know their reactions to the changes done in the temple pond to protect the turtles living there. It was really satisfying to see that people have noticed the positive changes after we took conservation measures. The Panchayat members who visited the temple pond appreciated the initiatives heartily and assured of all possible help from the local body.

Media coverage: Our project initiatives have been covered by many leading regional and national news media houses. Uttarbanga Sambad, Ananda Bajar Patrika, Bartamaan, The Statesman, and The Times of India published the news of this project initiatives. Conservation was the main focus which helped this small Indian Roofed Turtle population get an astounding recovery from a drastic loss. Local news channels telecasted the inauguration of the project, the establishing of the Kurma Avatar and the success of the initiatives by interviewing local people.

Social media for awareness: We utilized social media for spreading the news of this project, reaching more and more people to aware them of the importance of such initiative. We also targeted to motivate more people to join the initiative and help the cause. We were successful in doing so, many more people started following us and visited the temple to watch the turtles.

Unforeseen Hinderances:

1. Although it was known to us SPOAR team members that the shortest way of communication to and fro the project site was by crossing the Karala river, the first hurdle we faced was to transport the construction material to the project site, at the temple premises. This required larger vehicles, but there are restrictions for those bigger loaders to drive through the town.

How we solved the issue – We had to divide the work in two phases, first to carry the material in small loaders to the river bank and then to load the same in larger vehicles to cross the river and stock at the project site. This complete process was really tiring and also doubled the carriage costing allotted in the budget. But, we managed to negotiate with the builder to some cost cutting as the smaller carriages weren’t crossing the river anymore, saving a lot of fuel and damage to the vehicles.

2. The temple pond is just beside the Karala river. During the monsoon, the river overflowed the surrounding areas, including the pond, which made it really tough for us to keep the fencing poles intact at place. Also, the amount of sand in the soil made it difficult to hold on the pillars against the strong water flow during the rainy season.

How we solved the issue – The fencing pillars were founded 3 feet deep and the base was fixed with concrete to provide maximum support. To deal with the soil condition, the pillars were posted at smaller gaps in between.

3. Mandir committee members weren’t comfortable with building the “Kurma Avatar” temple in this Kali temple premises. Initially they opposed our approach by referring to their age old affinity and devotion to the local deity “Lotadevi Kali Mata”.

How we solved the issue – We convinced them of our sole purpose to safeguard the Turtle population of the pond. As “Kurma Avatar” himself was a Turtle, devotees are likely to find it more relatable to the pond turtles. Besides, every Kali temple homes a Lord Shiva Temple, and coexisting with a Vishnu Avatar temple will increase the popularity of this Deity.

4. There are a few large trees at the Lotadevi temple premises. During the stormy weather some branches fell from the tree onto the barbwire fencing taking down a few fencing poles with them. The fallen fences were easily crossed over by the grazing cattle and stray animals. There weren’t any human movement due to the bad weather conditions, but falling off the security measures could have been a threat to the turtles there.

How we solved the issue – As our objective is to “Protect and Conserve” species, we couldn’t cut down the trees to solve this issue. Rather, we bought local people into our faith to get notified at the earliest if the fencing gets damaged by natural calamities or by any man-made reason. This helped us both ways, we were able to get the news from distance and also we got local people involved in this conservation effort.

5. The entire temple area gets detached during most of the monsoon here. The overflowing river water and the flood situation makes it impossible to tread into the project location for a few weeks every year. Maintenance of the project site at the time becomes extremely difficult for anyone.

How we solved the issue – We used the narrow trail through the nearby tea garden to reach the project site. Though this was very difficult, but a person or two could at least take a look at the condition and prepare for the damage repair. Besides, local people kept an eye on the site from their home and informed us of any visible changes there.

Our Achievements:

We successfully restored the project site and the turtles are thriving now. Human interference, cattle grazing and other such disturbances have been minimized to a large extent. The barbwire fencing protects the water body and the surrounding area from people visiting the pond to perform the rituals that used to pollute the water immensely. There aren’t any human movement inside the   fenced area now and no incident of poaching, hunting or collecting of these turtles has occurred since. Even the number of turtle eggs found outside in earlier times have lessened. But, there are three major achievements of this project we would love to mention.

  1. With ensuring the protection of these turtles we have been able to clean the original pond off pollutants that made the turtle habitat unhealthy. Dredging and widening of the pond increased the habitation area for upcoming generation. We could also restore the pond water quality along with bringing back the vegetation and fishes required for the ecology.
  2. Footprints on the nesting beach confirmed the usage of the area by the turtles. Soon, hatchlings arrived, 8-10 in each batch. Different sizes of turtles can be seen in the pond now. The number of the turtles have almost doubled in a season and is growing continuously.
  3. With much advocacy and constant communication with locals we have finally been able to make people understand the need of saving these turtles, along with their habitat. People realized that conserving nature not only helps keep our own locality rich and balanced, but also it helps us earn some “Punya”. Afterall, the God almighty loves the ones who indulge in good “Karma”.
Protection of Indian Roofed Turtle (Pangshura tecta)

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