World Turtle Day is celebrated on May 23, but people who love turtles carry on this celebration for a whole week! An internet search for turtle images mostly throws up photos of marine turtles: the ones with flippers. Hence, when thinking of turtles, we tend to recall only these marine beauties. Many people are unfamiliar with freshwater turtles, which have limbs, and often webbed ones. Freshwater turtles, like marine turtles, belong to the order Chelonia, a group of shelled animals. Chelonia not only contains turtles, but also tortoises, which dwell mostly on land. Freshwater turtles that spend their time in both water and on land are called terrapins; they look very similar to tortoises.
Freshwater turtles and tortoises are referred to as the ‘non-marine’ chelonians, as they lack the adaptation to survive in sea water. Turtles are often known as the vultures of freshwater ecosystems – many species are scavengers and omnivores feeding on dead and decaying organic material in water, while the herbivore species prevent algal blooms and eutrophication. Turtles play a crucial role in the food web of aquatic ecosystems, and nutrient recycling. Turtles are one of the most threatened groups of vertebrates – India is home to 28 species of non-marine Chelonians, of which 54% are listed as Threatened in the IUCN Red List.
Freshwater turtles are majorly aquatic and spend most of their time in water. They surface up for breathing and often come out to bask. Their shells are either hard or soft, depending on the species. To swim effectively in water, their digits are webbed. They are primarily carnivorous. Most species lay their eggs on river banks and in sand or soil, but a few species lay their eggs in mud under the water itself. Their average lifespan is 20-40 years. Freshwater turtles can be further categorised as softshell and hardshell turtles.
Softshell turtles – The shells of these turtles do not have a hard shell with scales, but a bony shell with a leathery skin-cover instead. They are opportunistic feeders or piscivorous (fish-eaters). They show less conspicuous sexual dimorphism (males and females look almost alike). They generally nest in high, loamy banks of rivers. Most softshell turtles are aggressive, and can inflict minor injuries through biting.
Hardshell turtles – The shells of these turtles are made of hard, bony exoskeleton. They are primarily herbivores, feeding mainly on grasses, leaves and fruits. Many of them have clear sexual dimorphism (males are smaller than the females, and many of them develop bright colours during courtship season). They use open, sandy substrates to nest in. Hardshell turtles are less aggressive.
Are tortoises also turtles?
No. While turtles are more or less dependent on water, tortoises are completely terrestrial. Their shells are hard, heavy and dome-shaped. Their limbs are thick and column-like. They are primarily herbivores. They lay eggs by digging the soil and concealing their eggs in it. Their lifespan can be up to 150 years!
Karnataka’s shelled beauties
Karnataka is endowed with a variety of habitats–including lush evergreen forests, scrublands, and marine environs—sheltering diverse flora and fauna. Karnataka’s rivers, streams and other water-bodies are home to many species of turtles, while forests and scrublands are where we can see tortoises. Out of the 28 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises found in India, eight are found in Karnataka and three of these are endemic to South India.
Let me introduce you to the softshell turtles of Karnataka.
Leith’s Softshell Turtle (Nilssonia leithii)
This is a large turtle that can grow to a length of up to 70 cm and weigh upto 30 kg. They inhabit large rivers and reservoirs. These are omnivores and eat fish, crabs, molluscs, flowers, leaves, fruits, etc. This turtle is endemic to peninsular India, and Karnataka is one of the best states to sight them in. Dandeli National Park is one of the ideal locations to see this beauty. This turtle species is under threat due to large-scale poaching for meat. They are often collected illegally and transported to other South Asian countries. Habitat loss and damming of large rivers are also thought to have affected their populations. IUCN Status: Vulnerable
Indian Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle (Chitra indica)
These turtles are one of the largest turtles of India, up to 110 cm long! They are ambush predators and their bodies are adapted to suit this habit. Their shells are flattened, disc-shaped, and they have a very long neck. They bury themselves under the sandy bottom of rivers with just their eyes and snout out, and lunge at unwary prey when they pass by. They are omnivorous, feeding mainly on fish, frogs and molluscs. These turtles are distributed all over India, and yet, are rare. They are intensively poached for their shell and meat. IUCN Status: Endangered
Asian Giant Softshell Turtle / Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle (Pelochelys cantorii)
Like the previous species, this turtle also has a flattened shell. They are found in inland streams and large rivers, and are even found in mudflats and estuaries. They burrow under the sand of water-bodies and strike at unsuspecting prey. They eat fish, molluscs, crabs and even plants. They have a widespread distribution in South-east Asia. Despite such a wide-ranging distribution, these turtles are rare and are threatened with extinction owing to large-scale poaching and habitat loss. IUCN Status: Endangered
Indian Flapshell Turtle (Lissemys punctata)
This is one of the most common freshwater turtles of India. It has femoral flaps covering its hind legs and hence the name ‘flapshell’. Using these flaps, the turtle can close its shell completely. Flapshells are known to hibernate in places with harsh winters; and in places with extreme dry weather, they are known to walk long distances in search of water or aestivate by burying themselves under the soil. They are omnivores and can also scavenge carrion. They are facing severe threat from poaching. Every year, over 10,000 turtles are confiscated by the authorities from the illegal trade market. IUCN Status: Least Concern
These next couple of species are the hardshell turtles found in Karnataka.
Black Pond Turtle (Melanochelys trijuga)
This species too is one of the most common freshwater turtles of India. Widely distributed all over the country, they are adaptable to different kinds of water-bodies, be it ponds, rivers, or even small puddles. As the name suggests, they are black in colour. The males release a foul-smelling (to the human nose, at least) musk when threatened. IUCN Status: Near Threatened
Forest Cane Turtle (Vijayachelys sylvatica)
Forest Cane Turtles are endemic to the evergreen and semi-evergreen forests of the Western Ghats of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. They are highly cryptic in nature and very hard to find. Ever seen a turtle dive? Well, this one does; that too, in leaves. If encountered, they dive into the leaf litter on the forest floor! They are omnivorous and feed on fruits, leaves, arthropods, and molluscs. Males have a darker pink or scarlet colouring compared to females, besides also being smaller in size. IUCN Status: Endangered
Next are the two tortoise species found in Karnataka.
Indian Star Tortoise (Geochelone elegans)
It is so named because of the beautiful, yellow radiating pattern on its shell. The most common tortoise of India, it is found in scrub forests and agricultural lands. Adult females are much larger than adult males. They are highly sought after in illegal pet trade, and thousands are shipped to South Asian countries. Being protected under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, it is illegal to keep this tortoise as a pet. It is placed under Appendix II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) owing to the large-scale illegal trade of this species. IUCN Status: Vulnerable
Travancore Tortoise (Indotestudo travancorica)
This is a medium sized tortoise reaching up to 25-30 cm in length. They occur in hilly forested habitats and are omnivorous, feeding on a variety of fallen fruits and vegetation, as well as mushrooms, invertebrates, frogs, and carrion. During the hot and dry season, they remain dormant beneath leaf litter or other retreats. This tortoise is endemic to the evergreen and semi-evergreen forests of the Western Ghats. IUCN Status: Vulnerable
Once abundant in India’s river systems, wetlands, and forests, today, these turtles and tortoises face the threat of extinction due to increased poaching, habitat destruction and illegal trade. Every year, thousands of turtles and tortoises are taken out of their natural habitats to feed the pet trade demand. Many of them are illegally exported for pet trade and meat. It is estimated that about 55,000 individuals of Star Tortoises alone are exported illegally from just one trade hub of India. Without consolidated conservation actions, many species are facing the danger of being extinct in the near future. It is important to note that turtles are the most endangered amongst all the vertebrate groups.
What can we do for these turtles and tortoises? Here are some useful tips and information.
- Turtles are not pets. Indian species are often sold in the markets as ‘Singapuri’ turtles. Always remember that illegal wildlife trade is demand-driven. The more you buy, the more turtles are stripped out of their natural habitats to suit your pleasures. Avoid buying them.
- Do not release exotic turtles like the Red-eared Slider into natural water bodies. These turtles quickly become invasive, competing with indigenous turtle species for food and nesting sources, and wiping out local populations by spreading diseases.
- Do not throw plastic and other waste into natural habitats. Much has been talked about plastics in our ocean. Most of the plastic pollutants enter oceans and seas through freshwater rivers. Eight of the top ten highest polluting rivers are in Asia, and this includes India’s Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. If you live in an area where garbage collection and waste recycling isn’t the norm, write/talk to your authorities. Pressurise the ones in power to implement environment-friendly policies. Plastic bans are often a failure in India not just because of poor implementation of laws, but because of the unwillingness of people to participate in taking up the responsibility to implement the ban.
- Stop your vehicle for turtles and tortoises (and any other wildlife). If you find any turtles on roads, take them to your nearest Forest Department office or NGOs who rehabilitate wildlife.
- Lastly, volunteer for /donate to wildlife and environmental organisations. Help them organise outreach programmes and get involved in their campaigns.