Black softshell turtles had been considered extinct for twenty years now. The species said goodbye in 2002, when it hadn’t been seen from the wetlands in southern Nepal for some time and the only specimens still alive were raised in a Sufi sanctuary in Bangladesh. Now researchers have identified new specimens swimming in the Brahmaputra River which runs through India and Bangladesh, and others in Nepal.
In short, Nilssonia nigricans has staged a small miracle, re-emerging from oblivion, it is not known how, and returning precisely to those lands where it once prospered. “We sighted the species in the Betana wetland in southern Nepal,” says Tapil Prakash Rai, co-author of the report from the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation of Nepal detailing the find.
The turtles were first spotted after their extinction by Arco-Nepal president Hermann Schleich six years ago, but it took time to get confirmation. Schleich, born in Germany, is a paleoherpetologist, meaning an expert on extinct reptiles and amphibians. And since that first sighting, the count has now risen to 17 specimens, puppies included. Few to consider the threat of extinction archived, but enough to be able to hope for a better future.
The Betana Wetland, in the Morang district, Nepal, covers 5.5 hectares and is surrounded by a dense forest of about 175 hectares. The area is known as a refuge for migratory birds as well as various fish species. Exploration is by no means easy but the most common theory is that these turtles have retraced their steps by emigrating from Bangladesh, where some specimens still lived in the wild.
The enigmatic black softshell turtle has long been associated with the sacred. Some Hindus believe he is an incarnation of Vishnu. In the Bayazid Bastami shrine in Bangladesh, these turtles are considered the reincarnation of evil spirits. Now “We have to make the community aware of the importance of the turtle so that they can help in conserving it,” says Tapil Prakash Rai.
As Ashmita Shrestha of the NGO Greenhood Nepal explains, “All turtles face a variety of threats in Nepal. We can see people killing them for meat, others fishing them unintentionally and still others taking the young they find on the river to take them with them at home as pets”. Added to all this are the “problems of climate change which is drying up the wetlands of the Terai, while the massive use of pesticides is contaminating the water”. It is therefore very important, concludes Tapil Prakash Rai, “to grow a more aware population” while “the discovery will also provide an incentive to protect the black turtle to attract tourists to the area”.