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Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, 2000, 6:16-17
© 2000 by Chelonian Research Foundation

Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter

The Beleaguered Chelonians of Northeastern India

Abhik Gupta
Department of Ecology, Assam University, Silchar 788 011, India; E-mail: abhikgupta@hotmail.com

The Northeastern region of India is home to one of two biodiversity hotspots in India (Myers et al., 2000). This region abounds in different types of freshwater ecosystems including torrential mountain streams of both groundwater and glacial origins, large meandering rivers in the valleys with relict channels, oxbows and seasonally inundated floodplain lakes, and swamps, marshes, ponds, pools and others. The floral diversity is also extremely high with tropical wet evergreen, montane wet temperate, tropical semi evergreen, tropical moist deciduous, sub-tropical pine, and swamp forests, as well as dense bamboo and cane brakes (FSI, 2000). Such rich diversity is accompanied by a correspondingly high diversity of turtles and tortoises. Of the 26 species of non-marine chelonians reported from India, 19 are found in northeastern India (Das, 1996; Pawar and Choudhury, 2000), thus making it an important repository of chelonian diversity. However, a plethora of anthropogenic stresses are now exerting severe pressure on this interesting group of reptiles.

Habitat destruction
The forest cover is rapidly disappearing from the entire region, especially the state of Assam. Several paper and pulp mills are exerting unsustainable pressure on the bamboo forests. Cutting and burning of forests for slashand- burn cultivation poses a threat to the hill tortoises. The quality of the forest is also deteriorating, with the dense forests (canopy closure of 40% or more) becoming degraded into open forest or scrub. This forest destruction is resulting in a food shortage, as bamboo sprouts have been reported to be the favorite food item of some species. Deforestation and the resultant loss of soil, especially in the hill areas, are leading to increased siltation of rivers and streams. The deep pools that are the favored habitats of many species, are rapidly becoming shallow and choked with silt, leading to a decline in habitat. At the same time, swamps, marshes, and other wetlands are increasingly being reclaimed for urban and agricultural expansion. These changes are reflected in a sharp decline of chelonian density.

Hunting / trapping for flesh
A vast majority of the indigenous inhabitants of this region are carnivorous in their food habits and crave turtle meat and eggs. Many communities have expert hunters, trappers and fishermen. In the past, the hunting/trapping was done with considerable prudence with many taboos and restrictions. The Ningthouja clan of the Meiteis of Manipur, for example, considered it a taboo to consume turtle or tortoise meat (Gupta and Guha, 2002). Unfortunately, a rapid incursion of consumerist culture and the lure of easy money are fast making this market unsustainable.

Collecting is often done with mindless cruelty. For instance, many turtle hunters use spears to gore the hapless creatures in shallow water, refusing to spare even juveniles. Another common practice is to lay rows of hooked lines in shallow water near sandbanks. As the turtles move into this area, their paddles get caught in the hooks. A male and a female Kachuga sylhetensis - a rare species endemic to this region - recently rescued had their front paddles badly mauled by hooks. In addition to nets, various traps made of bamboo and cane are also used.

Use in traditional / alternative medicine
Both the flesh and eggs are believed to have several medicinal properties. The blood, believed to be a cure for piles and fistula, is also in great demand. The flesh is supposed to be a remedy for gout and arthritis, while the carapace of the soft shell turtles is also used as medicine. Live animals as well as gunny sacks full of carapaces - probably Aspidaretes hurum and Lissemys punctata andersoni - used to be exported out of this region to the other parts of India, until at least the mid-eighties. That practice has now stopped because the numbers have dwindled drastically, but because of the decline, traders now offer very lucrative prices for flesh and carapace to the tribal hunters and fishermen.

Superstitious beliefs
There are many superstitious beliefs that lead to the killing of turtles. Hanging a carapace in the cattle-shed is believed to be a good luck charm and to keep snakes away from the premises; hanging a carapace on the door or wall of a house is believed by some to keep away burglars.

A recent survey conducted in Assam has identified certain areas rich in freshwater chelonian diversity. These include the floodplain area of Dibru-Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve in the Northeastern corner of Assam where eight species have been recorded with unconfirmed reports for an additional three. However, progressive siltation of the lakes and pools, as well as poaching, are proving to be hazardous for the turtles. Other diversity-rich areas include the Hajong Lake and marsh in the Langting-Mupa Forest Reserve in North Cachar Hills district of Assam, inhabited by seven or eight species, several floodplain lakes in Nagaon, Kamrup and Cachar districts of Assam, the Rukni river that flows out of Mizoram into the plains of Cachar, Assam, and the Jiri river and its tributaries in the Assam-Manipur border. These areas need to be declared as chelonian sanctuaries, and widespread awareness campaigns need to be undertaken to wean potential consumers away from eating turtle meat and eggs and to remove the superstitious beliefs from their minds.

Although poaching is a problem, turtles have historically received community-sanctioned religious protection in many temple tanks in this region. Examples include softshell turtles protected in the Kamakhya temple at Guwahati, Assam and Aspidaretes gangeticus in the Tripureshwari temple at Udaipur, Tripura. More recently, the Shiva temple at Tinsukia, Assam has started offering turtles sanctuary. Thus ex situ conservation of chelonians in community and temple tanks and in public gardens could also constitute a useful mechanism for conservation.

References

Das, I. 1996. Biogeography of the Reptiles of South Asia. Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 87 pp.

F.S.I. 2000. State of Forest Report 1999. Dehra Dun: Forest Survey of India (Ministry of Environment and Forests), 113 pp.

Gupta, A. and Guha, K. 2002. Tradition and conservation in Northeastern India: an ethical analysis. Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 12: 15-18.

Myers, N., Mittermeier, R.A., Mittermeier, C.A., Da Fonseca, G.A.B., and Kent, J. 2000. Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature, London 403: 853-858.

Pawar, S.S. and Choudhury, B.C. 2000. An inventory of Chelonians from Mizoram, North-East India: new records and some observations on threats. Hamadryad 25(2): 144-158.