Ayushi Jain thought freshwater turtles in India don’t get their due. “So many researchers work on just four species of sea turtles,” she says. “It’s the stark opposite for freshwater turtles. Only a handful of people work on 24 species. This was shocking to me.”
Instead of working on freshwater turtles in general, as those few researchers do, conservation biologist Jain focused her energies on a little-known secretive species, the Cantor’s or Asian giant softshell turtle. As its name implies, the olive-brown turtle grows up to one metre in length, almost as wide, and ranks as the second largest freshwater turtle in India. Despite its size, it’s rarely seen.
When Jain compiled all the reports ever published on the species by scientists and journalists, the list had only 15 records spanning 45 years. “Most of them were opportunistic records of turtles caught as bycatch,” she says. “No one went looking for it.” Most people don’t even know of the turtle. How to study a rarely seen aquatic creature?
Basking at night
During the day, turtles sit pretty on logs and rocks along riverbanks and islands. But not the giant softshell. Not one has ever been seen soaking up the sun, leading Jain to suspect that it might bask at night like the Krefft’s river turtle of Australia, which probably removes itself after dark from the path of freshwater crocodiles cruising the rivers. The giant softshell’s supreme reluctance to show itself makes the standard survey techniques unviable.
The true scale of the problem must have dawned on Jain when she staked out a small isolated pond near river Chandragiri in Kasaragod District, Kerala, where people had reported seeing an enormous turtle. Its deceptively small but uniquely shaped nose, which resembles the muzzle of a tiny double-barrelled shotgun, broke the water surface to get a breath of air just twice throughout the day. To map where the species lives would need several lifetimes or lots of pairs of eyes.
Fisherfolk call it ‘pala poovan’
Many Southeast Asians refer to it as the frog-faced softshell turtle, but the fisherfolk of Chandragiri choose to see beauty, calling it pala poovan since its nose and white bony belly plate resemble the shape and colour of the pala flower, a type of crape jasmine. After months of living in Kanathur village along the Chandragiri and cultivating contacts among the fishing community, Jain began receiving calls on the rare occasions when a pala poovan was inadvertently netted. These were the only opportunities to see the animal.
Instead of swimming away with the current as other turtles would when released, these immediately buried themselves entirely in the riverbed’s sand, leaving only their noses sticking out. They spent most of their time stock-still in this ambush position, and when fish or shrimp swam past, their heads shot lightning fast to snap up the prey.
More than a desire to remain hidden and their phenomenal breath-holding ability, something else is decidedly odd about the pala poovan. They frequently swim out into the sea where some have become tangled in shore seine nets. An adult female, about 40 cm long, was snagged 3 km from the coast. Three men had to lift her out of the net. How much farther the freshwater species can travel into the ocean? Does it use the seafront to go from one river system to another? The answers to these questions aren’t known.
“Some part of its life cycle must be tied to this behaviour,” Jain speculates.
In Orissa, researchers recorded these giant freshwater turtles nesting alongside olive ridley sea turtles on sandy beaches. However, no scientist from other parts of the range has described this behaviour. Either these animals don’t nest on the seaside elsewhere or this tendency has escaped people’s attention.
The difficulties of studying the elusive pala poovan haven’t dissuaded Jain. Instead, these unique behaviours reinforce her determination to reveal its secrets and raise its popularity on a par with its sea turtle beach mates.
The writer is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.