In what can be seen as the second such rescue of a rare and protected reptile from the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), a two-and-a-half-year-old female Leith’s Softshell Turtle (Nilssonia leithii), weighing 85 kgs, was rescued by forest officials and a wildlife rescue team on Monday.
The turtle was released at an undisclosed location by the forest department and members of an animal welfare group on Monday evening without consulting researchers about the importance of such a sighting.
Veterinarians from the Thane Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (TSPCA) said that the last time the same species was rescued in MMR was in 2015 from a creek area at Navi Mumbai. The Leith’s Softshell Turtle is listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is protected under schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
Researchers said that since it was a freshwater turtle and there were no rivers in the Kalwa region, it was a very rare sighting and needs to be studied further. Wildlife experts said that the species has been involved in many turtle trade cases across the world and could have landed at the site during the transfer of a shipment.
On Monday, locals spotted the massive reptile near a pond, close to Mafatlal ground, ten minutes away from the Kalwa station in Thane. The turtle was out of the pond and was struggling to move back to it. A crowd had gathered around it when animal welfare groups were called.
“We received a distress call from locals and rushed to the spot around 10am. The sheer size of the turtle made it very difficult for us to transport it. We had never seen a turtle so big and heavy in this region in the past,” said Sushant Koli, member, NGO Animals and Plants Welfare trust, who carried out the rescue with Amey Patil. “It seemed like the reptile was dehydrated, so we informed the forest department and rushed it to the closest veterinary hospital.”
Veterinarians from the Thane Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (TSPCA) said that the turtle was healthy and declared fit after it was brought in. “Our preliminary medical examination showed that the turtle was not dehydrated and fit for release. However, we wanted to study and document the presence of this rare species but since the forest department wanted to release it, we did not object,” said Shakuntala Majumdar, president, TSPCA.
She added that the last time the Leith’s Softshell Turtle was rescued, special arrangements were made to release it. “This turtle is being used for illegal trade purposes and we ensured that the last one was released under proper supervision so that it reaches its natural habitat. However, we do not know where this turtle might have gone,” said Majumdar. “It is a vulnerable species and one mistake could cost a lot in conservation.”
- Leith’s Softshell Turtle (Nilssonia leithii) is a large turtle that is known to attain at least 720 mm (2.3 feet) in carapace length (entire body), and possibly as much as 1000 mm (3.2 feet). The turtle is apparently rare within its range, even within protected areas, which is suspected to be due to a past history of exploitation.
- Distribution: The species inhabits the rivers and reservoirs of southern peninsular India and north gangetic plains. Restricted to southern peninsular India - Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, and Tamil Nadu) in the Cauvery, Thungabhadra, Ghataprabha, Bhavani, Godavari, and Moyar drainages.
- Threats: Although once common, this species has disappeared from much of its former range, mainly due to siltation and drying up of rivers during the summer. Ongoing wildlife trade that started from the mid-1970s has also led to a drop in numbers.
- What it eats: Fish, crabs, freshwater molluscs, and mosquito larvae are taken as food, and some numbers are kept in temple tanks, where they are often fed on Hibiscus flowers.
- Reproduction: At least two clutches of eggs, which are spherical, are suspected to be produced per year. (Source: IUCN and a study on Nilssonia leithii (Gray 1872) – Leith’s Softshell Turtle Indraneil Das, Shashwat Sirsi, Karthikeyan Vasudevan , and BHCK Murthy)
Experts that identified the turtle said that there was no evidence of this turtle’s existence within MMR. “The distribution of this species has been seen along rivers near Pune and some creek areas but there are no records of their distribution close to creeks near Mumbai or any river system,” said Dr Gowri Mallapur, veterinarian and director, Tillari Biodiversity Research who has worked with the Turtle Surveillance Alliance.
“There is high chance that the turtle was being transported illegally and possibly on its way to being sold. It might have been released in the pond to keep it calm. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau needs to look into the matter urgently and ensure that no consignment is being kept at this location,” said Tito Joseph, programme coordinator, Wildlife Protection Society of India.
Officials from the Thane forest department were unaware about the exact details of the rescue. “We have been told that forest guards had accompanied the animal welfare group. We are investigating why it was released before properly studying the importance of the species,” said Sunil Limaye, chief conservator of forest, Thane territorial.