Chasing the Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle

In May 2019, Ayushi Jain moved to Kanathur village, Kerala, in search of the rare Cantor’s giant softshell turtle. Seven months later, the conservation biologist got a call that sent her hopes soaring. The caller reported sighting “a big head” in a pool where large-scale death of fish had occurred. Was this the reptile she had been looking for? The turtle had been last sighted in 2010 by Muhammed Jafer Palot, Zoological Assistant, Zoological Survey of India.

Building a network of informers

As Ayushi, who hails from Uttar Pradesh, set off for the pool in the Chandragiri river (also called Payaswini), she was elated that her network of informers, painstakingly built since November 2018, was yielding information. As she travelled, she also contacted her mentors and experts to decide on her next move. When she reached the spot, the Kerala Forest Department officials were investigating the cause for the death of the fish. “As I waited, an entire day passed,” recalls Ayushi, adding, “This is an unknown species and so far few studies have been done on it. The turtle is shy and large — it can grow up to one metre in length.”

Chasing the Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle

This reptile is found in 11 Southeast Asian countries and is also called the Asian giant softshell turtle. Ayushi’s turtle connection goes back to 2016, when she interned at the Turtle Survival Alliance in Lucknow. She joined Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bengaluru to do a course in Herpetology and thereafter developed her project on studying the distribution and mapping of turtles across India at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru. Alongside, she pursued her Master’s in Ecology and Environmental Sciences in Puducherry. An early career conservationist, she was selected in 2018 as a Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) Fellow, by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Deepak Veerappan, her mentor at IISc and now affiliated with the National History Museum in London, advised her to submit a proposal on the conservation of Cantor’s giant softshell turtle under EDGE. And thus began her search for this rare species.

As Ayushi waited for the “big head” to pop again, she began interacting with the crowd that had gathered there due to the death of the fish. “Many mentioned having seen a huge turtle but said it was seen once in two years,” she remembers. She also wondered if the locals were talking about the endemic Leith’s softshell turtle commonly found in Indian rivers. However, Balakrishnan, a local journalist, confirmed that he had seen the Cantor’s species in 2015 and had a few photographs.

On day two, the “big head” popped up for a few seconds. “I recognised the snout of the Cantor turtle,” says Ayushi.

Her success encouraged her to build a wider network of informers among communities along the Kuttiyadi and Valapattanam rivers in Kasargod district. “Social science is an important aspect in conservation programmes,” says Ayushi, who interviewed nearly 200 people. “One has to to make a strong connect with the community rather than obsessing after and chasing the species. Our aim was to use their knowledge of the turtle. Many were unaware of it. Only those who worked on the river knew of the species. Even then they had heard of or seen it as a bycatch.”

Chasing the Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle

Her project came to a halt during the monsoon, as “the movement pattern of the turtle is not known”.

In December 2019 came the first call of“having spotted the ‘palapoovan”, the local name for the turtle. “A three-kilogram turtle with a hook in its mouth was found as bycatch. Till then, I had only seen it in the river, never on land,” says Ayushi, who warned people not to touch the animal. “It has a powerful jaw and is highly aggressive. It can rip off a body part.”

Following protocol, she took photographs, measured the turtle, cut the line and released it. “I was shivering with joy and fear. It was important to release it safely.”

The encounter rejuvenated her spirits, and it was conclusive that the species was breeding around the area. “I realised I was on the right track.”

In January 2020, another caller sent photographs of a palm-sized hatchling and, over a phone call, she guided him to release the turtle back in the waters. So far her team has rescued three turtles and confirmed that the area is “a critical habitat”. In the last two months, they have installed camera traps to see if nesting occurs.

On January 17, 2021, in association with the Kerala Forest Department, Ayushi conducted an awareness workshop in Kanhangad near Kasargode to guide the local community on the first primary response when the turtle is spotted.

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 12:14:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/finding-the-rare-cantors-giant-softshell-turtle/article33673174.ece

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