From Myth to Reality: Scientists Uncover Hidden Turtle Paradise in Kerala’s Rivers

Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle Hatchling

Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle hatchling taken along the Chandragiri river in Kerala, India. Credit: Ayushi Jain

Biologists have identified a breeding group of Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtles during conservation initiatives in southern India.

Local communities have provided essential knowledge leading to the first-ever discovery of nesting evidence and a breeding population of an extremely rare turtle species in India.

The Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) is native to the rivers of South and Southeast Asia. Known for its rarity and secretive nature, this species has long been a subject of fascination and concern among conservationists.

Habitat destruction has made it disappear from much of its environment. They are also heavily harvested by locals for meat and are often killed by fishermen when caught in fishing gear.

Currently, the freshwater turtle is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, and its numbers today are decreasing.

Engaging Local Communities for Conservation

To uncover the whereabouts of the species, a team of conservationists turned to those who live in and share their habitat, and this journey took them to the verdant banks of the Chandragiri River in Kerala.

By talking to local villagers, the group was able to systematically document sightings of the turtle and engaged communities in conservation efforts.

Cantor's Giant Softshell Turtle

Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) taken along the Chandragiri river in Kerala, India. Credit: Ayushi Jain

This work led to the first documentation of a female nesting, and the rescue of eggs from flooded nests. The hatchlings were later released into the river.

Collaborative Research and Conservation Efforts

The study, published in the journal Oryx, was led by conservationists from the University of Portsmouth and Zoological Society of London in England, University of Miami, Museum of Zoology at the Senckenberg Society for Nature Research in Germany, Florida Museum of Natural History in the USA, and Wildlife Institute of India.

Corresponding author, Dr Francoise Cabada-Blanco from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Portsmouth, said: “For years, the Cantor turtle’s existence has barely been a murmur against the backdrop of India’s bustling biodiversity, with sightings so scarce that the turtle’s very presence seemed like a ghost from the past.

Ayushi Jai Interview

Ayushi Jai interviewing members of the local community. Credit: Akshay V Anan

“Following several unsuccessful attempts at tracking one down using conventional ecological survey methods, we took a different approach by tapping into local knowledge.

“The team, led by Ayushi Jain was able to engage the community really effectively, so much so that they shared tales of historical sightings, provided leads on current occurrences, and even aided in the live release of individuals accidentally caught as by-catch.”

Ayushi’s team is now working on setting up a community hatchery and nursery.

Ayushi Jain, from the Zoological Society of London’s Edge of Existence Programme, added: “Through household interviews and the establishment of a local alert network, we did not just listen; we learned.”

“The community’s willingness to engage formed the backbone of our project, allowing us to record not just fleeting glimpses of the turtles but evidence of a reproductive population—a discovery that rewrites the narrative of a species thought to be vanishing from India’s waters.”

The paper says the implications of the findings underscore the invaluable role of local knowledge in conservation science—a tool as critical as any satellite tag or camera trap in the quest to understand and protect our planet’s biodiversity.

The establishment of the alert network represents a pioneering approach in the area, where community involvement leads to real-time insights and immediate action, paving the way for a more responsive and inclusive model of wildlife conservation in Kerala.

“Uniting traditional wisdom with scientific inquiry can certainly illuminate the path forward for the conservation of the Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle,” added Dr. Cabada-Blanco.

“Our study is a narrative of rediscovery, of finding hope in the stories told by the river and its people, and of laying the groundwork for a future where this magnificent species can thrive, not just survive.”

Reference: “Using local ecological knowledge to determine the status of Cantor’s giant softshell turtle Pelochelys cantorii in Kerala, India” by Ayushi Jain, V.A. Akshay, V. Deepak, Abhijit Das, Paul Barnes, Benjamin Tapley and Francoise Cavada-Blanco, 19 February 2024, Oryx.
DOI: 10.1017/S0030605323001370

Be the first to comment on "From Myth to Reality: Scientists Uncover Hidden Turtle Paradise in Kerala’s Rivers"

Leave a comment

Email address is optional. If provided, your email will not be published or shared.