Like for raptors, turtle females outsize males. The Chhatbir zoo acquired three Indian roofed turtles recently from a Ludhiana family. The turtles are striking due to their odd-shaped carapace (shell), dainty size and look, and a plastron (underside) patterned like a tiger skin. Studies reveal the female’s mean weight is 4.8 times of the male and is essentially an evolutionary provision aimed at reproduction/egg storage.
Though, if seen from the male viewpoint, one can well imagine the challenges posed to the poor fellow while clambering aboard the “hulk” on honeymoon night! Males are also distinguished from females by the former’s having a concave shape to the plastron to facilitate copulation, a longer tail with a thick base, and a white band on the top of the tail in contrast to the female’s yellow band.
An interesting tale lies behind the zoo’s acquisition of this turtle species. The Ludhiana family had responded to the campaign by Turtle Survival Alliance, requesting pet owners to surrender native turtles as possession attracts legal punishment. Zoo authorities suspect the turtles were sourced from the illegal pet trade actually but declared as “rescued from the wilderness” by the Ludhiana family.
“This turtle has been placed under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, to serve as a deterrent to the illegal pet trade. People keep this turtle to practise feng shui. However, sometimes this turtle refuses to eat in captivity, raising fears in the owners that it will die in their house and augur a bad omen. So, they panic and hand over turtle pets to zoos and claim they rescued it,” explained reptile expert Dr BC Choudhury.
A HOLIDAY GONE SOUR
Some of us denizens of the hot plains can boast of spending holidays with relatives and friends commanding army formations in Kashmir and Ladakh. The attendant facilities are fabled stuff: privileges galore, liveried rum service, velvet-cover commode seats and free travel. But this particular jaunt was grotesque in its intent: to poach endangered Ladakh mammals, and to do so under army protection and provision of mountain logistics.
The arrest on April 13 of Jet Airways pilot officer Arjun Balraj Mehta and two personnel of the 254 (Independent) Armoured Brigade at Magnetic Hills, 30 kilometres from Leh, now has ensnared the brigade’s deputy commander, colonel Bhanu Pratap Singh, who is alleged to have provided his official Maruti Gypsy, ammunition and personnel to facilitate his guest’s activities.
Leh senior superintendent of police T Gyalpo told this writer that the colonel’s name had been included in the FIR (first-information report) registered at Leh under Sections 8 (hunting of scheduled animals), 51 (penalties), 54 (abetting contravention of the law), and 60 (prosecution proving that a person is in possession of any captive animal or animal article etc.) of the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Act and Sections 7 (Carrying prohibited arms and ammunition) and 27 (punishment for using weapons) of the Indian Arms Act.
“This is based on the confessions of the two army personnel who said they had accompanied Mehta on orders from the colonel. They have also recorded their statements before the chief judicial magistrate of Leh. We have questioned the colonel a few times and we may arrest him,” said Gyalpo.
The matter came to light on April 13 when a wildlife department team under Leh warden Tsering Angchuk witnessed Mehta firing three rifle shots at wild Urial sheep. When the wildlife team apprehended Mehta and the jawans, a truckload of army personnel landed up. “We were manhandled and assaulted. Three officers also arrived and threatened to take us to the unit. They also tried to take away the keys of the Gypsy we had seized. Fortunately for us, the Leh SHO (station house officer) arrived and civilian passersby in buses stopped to look at the confrontation. This prevented the army personnel from intimidating us further,” Angchuk told this writer.
A resident of Dwarka, Delhi, Arjun B Mehta, is son of brigadier Balraj Mehta, who is posted at the army headquarters in Delhi. The rifle recovered is a .30-06 Springfield manufactured by JP Sauer and Sohn of Germany and fitted with a Nikon Monarch UCC riflescope. “Mehta has seven other weapons on his arms licence, as he enjoys the category of national shooter. We recovered from him 15 empty bullet cases of the .22 bore along with 230 live bullets; and 30 live bullets of .30-06 bore along with 14 empty cases. Some of these bullets belonged to the colonel Bhanu Pratap Singh,” said Gyalpo.
In the seized Gypsy displaying the banner of “DY CDR”, the police found the blood, skin, and hair of an animal. In a parallel development, a team probed a reported poaching incident at Huling in Hemis National Park (HNP) that took place just before April 13. “Prima facie, it appears that the samples from the Gypsy are of the Blue sheep. The blood stains found at HNP are also suspected to be of the Blue sheep. A test of both samples will confirm whether the same poachers were at work in the two incidents,” said warden Tsering Angchuk.
Northern Command spokesperson colonel SD Goswami told this writer: “The army has initiated a court of inquiry.”