Turtles are mostly herbivorous aquatic animals. They help in naturally regulating aquatic ecosystems by feeding on various plants. Even though they were fairly common in India in the past, their numbers have declined a lot. Turtles are reptiles. They are locally known as ‘Kachhua’ in India. The aquatic species are known as Turtles while their terrestrial counterparts are called Tortoises. Another type is Terrapins. The top shell of their body is known as Carapace, and the bottom part is Plastron. There are more than 20 species of freshwater and six species of Marine turtles in India. Almost all these species are currently endangered. Both aquatic and terrestrial species are at risk.
Asian Brown Tortoise
The largest terrestrial specie found in India is the Asian Brown Tortoise. This specie is believed to be the oldest specie of turtles alive today. Their feet are very strong and adapted for walking. They feed on herbs, tree bark, bamboo leaves, and fruits from the hilly environment. They weigh around 25 to 30 kgs. These residents of evergreen forests are currently critically endangered in India.
Yellow Elongated Tortoise
The Yellow Elongated Tortoise is another hilly species that is critically endangered. Their carapace have very distinct square markings. They feed on fruits, leaves, worms etc from the forest floor. They can be found in Northeastern and Southeastern hilly regions of India.
Three Keeled Land Tortoise
Another Terrestrial species is the Three Keeled Land Tortoise. They have three distinct lines running from their heads to their tail. This is why they are known as Three-keeled Land Tortoise. Their plastron is yellowish in color. Their heads, back and feet are black. Their whole body is covered in various patterns. Currently, they are also one of the critically endangered species in India.
Common River Terrapins
Common River Terrapins are on the verge of extinction worldwide. These Asian freshwater turtles can grow up to 60 cm in length. They can be spotted in rivers and deltas. These brown turtles have small heads about their bodies, and their noses are very thin. But males and females can change colors about seasonal changes. During the breeding season, females lay 10 to 30 eggs. It takes 50 to 60 days for the eggs to hatch. They play integral roles in maintaining ecological balance in the aquatic environment.
Another large freshwater turtle is the Bostami Turtle. These critically endangered species are found only in Kalyan Sagar Lake in Guwahati, Assam in India. These turtles are protected by locals due to religious beliefs and also by local wildlife conservation laws. Crowned River Turtle are another critically endangered species of turtles. Their backs are dome shaped. Their plastrons are yellowish black. Their heads are quite big about their body. Yellowish orange lines on either side of their head make them look unique. Sometimes, they have these lines on the top of their head too. In the past, these turtles were fairly common in our country but today they are one of the rarest. Spotted pond turtles are very attractive looking. Their carapace has three distinct keels. Their head, legs, and backs have yellow spots. Their head and neck have more yellow spots than the rest of their body. This makes them more attractive. They are found mostly in still water, and that is why they are called spotted pond turtles. Asian Leaf Turtles can be found in our Southeastern Hilly evergreen forests. These small sized turtles are also endangered. Their shells are like leaves in shape and colors. Their brown bodies have thick dark lines. They are omnivorous but prefer eating fruits from the forest floor. They are crucial for seed disposal. All the six species of Marine of sea turtles found here are currently endangered. Except for Olive Ridley turtles, the other species are currently extremely rare to find in our coastal regions. Common River Terrapin and the Asiatic Soft Shell Turtle are the most endangered species of turtle in India today.
Aquatic turtles clean up the dead plants, animals and organic material from our water bodies. Then there is a relationship these turtles have with fish. Turtles discharge their waste into the water. The waste has nutrients that help the fish. So, when turtle populations decline, fishes are also harmed. A lot of turtles get trapped in fishing nets. In the developed world, this is being counteracted by using a ‘Turtle Excluder Device’ while fishing. But this TED using practice is still not so common in India. Also, increasing tourism in coastal regions like Gulf of Khambhat and Salt Marshes of Kachchh has destroyed a lot of their breeding grounds. In the past, almost all our water bodies had some species of turtles. But landfills, water pollution, increasing urbanization, deforestation and other such factors have led to the demise of our hilly and aquatic turtles. Other than this, turtle meat and eggs are very popular as food in some rural communities. The strong demand for this comes from nature. This results in the killing of thousand of turtles every year. In this way, their natural reproductive growth is being hampered. The illegal hunting and trapping business is also one of the main factors for their decline. We have destroyed much of their natural habitat. Then there is water and land pollution which is leading to the demise of many turtle species. There is a great need to enforce our wildlife laws to save these animals. These animals are essential to our aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. We need o protect their habitats and conserve the places where they live. We also need to breed the species that are close to extinction in captivity. Then we can breed them in safety and eventually reintroduce them back into nature. Then mass awareness and knowledge are crucial. We need to uphold their importance and need to the public. We, humans, tend only to pay attention to an issue when we have some prospect of monetary gain. But turtles, other reptiles, and animals are helping us without gaining anything. We don’t value this at all. We just have to start valuing these important aspects. Then only the problems like habitat destruction, illegal exports, hunting and killing of turtles can be dealt with.