It is not known how and when their ancestors came here. But cut off from the rest of their tribe, they found a safe haven here and thrived for years to set up a huge colony, while members of their family who were out in the open were killed and traded until their numbers dwindled to such an extent that the international community proclaimed them an “endangered species”.
Scientists of the Indian Botanic Garden in Howrah have stumbled upon a huge colony of the Indian Roofed Turtle (pangshura tecta) in one of the 24 lakes inside the garden.
The scientists hope there are many more in the other lakes, along with other species, as well.
The discovery becomes all the more important because the Indian Roofed Turtle, once abundant in Bengal and other parts of India, have now been notified as endangered.
The species also finds mention in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red Data list of endangered and rare animals.
“While the mature ones were once killed rampantly for their meat, which is rich in vitamin D and highly palatable, the young ones were smuggled to be kept as pets,” says BHCK Murthy, a scientist with the Zoological Survey of India dealing with fresh water turtles.
IUCN experts have already met the garden authorities. Zoological Survey of India experts, too, are planning to study the animals.
“We’re still not sure where, how and when they entered the lakes,” says Basant Kumar Singh, a Botanics scientist.
“They were either introduced by the British, or sneaked into the lakes, which were once connected to the Hooghly,” he adds.
These species have an average lifespan of 10-15 years.
“So, we’re sure they haven’t come here recently, since the tunnels connecting the pond to the river have been jammed for many years. Their forefathers had come here and started breeding, ultimately forming the colony. Second, it won’t be possible for them to come here, adapt to the new condition and start breeding so fast that they set up a new colony. We’re quite sure that they had sneaked into the ponds or were introduced several decades ago – if not a century ago,” HS Debnath, joint director of the Indian Botanic Garden, told HT.
The garden’s ponds, most of which were dug by the British, have connecting tunnels.
They are also connected to the Hooghly through two tunnels, which have lock gates to control the flow of water.
But due to years of siltation and poor maintenance, all these tunnels and gates have got jammed. This has hampered the flow of water between these ponds and the river during high and low tides, which, in turn, was hampering aquatic life.
“We undertook a project to restore all the ponds just a month ago.
The union ministry of environment and forests has sanctioned R1 crore. The plan is to pump out the water, dig up the pond bed to make it deeper and refill it with water,” Debnath said.
While the project was going on, the scientists spotted the turtles, which had remained elusive all these years since nobody cared for them, in one of the water bodies, named Sadir Lake.
“Initially, we spotted just two of them – a pair of male and female basking in the sun on a log floating in the water. A closer scrutiny over the next few days led to the discovery of the entire family – husband, wife, children, grandchildren and their kin,” says Debnath.
News of the discovery was sent to the Nature, Environment and Wildlife Society, a citybased NGO. “It’s truly a remarkable find. An entire community of this species thriving in a pond and cut off from the rest of their tribe is very hard to find these days,” says Shailendra Singh of the Turtle Survival Alliance, a global alliance of scientists.