Guwahati: The critically-endangered black softshell turtle now has a new home in a protected area in Assam.

Researchers from Aaranyak have confirmed the sighting of a black softshell turtle (N. nigricans) at the Manas National Park, in a stream of the Pahumara river, a tributary of the Beki river that drains into the Brahmaputra in western Assam.

The study has been published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa.

The presence of black softshell turtles was earlier reported from Kaziranga National Park, Nameri Tiger Reserve, and Pakke Tiger Reserve, and may also be distributed in Assam’s Kaziranga-Orang Riverine landscape. It is also known to be distributed in some isolated sub-populations in several temple ponds of Assam and Tripura. 

Earlier, young ones believed to be juvenile black softshell turtles were found in streams originating inside the Manas National Park.  

Photo credit: Gayatri Dutta

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“A lot of biodiversity and its distribution in our region is still unknown. With our luscious forests and deep valleys, I think it is important we understand that scientific reporting is crucial and acts as a base for the future ecological study of the species. Since the paper was released, I’ve been getting messages from fellow conservationists that they had known about its distribution. I had to remind them that unless a scientific record of that species exists, that species is as good as gone,” Ivy Farheen Hussain, Project Officer and Analyst, Legal and Advocacy Division, Aaranyak who is one of the co-authors told EastMojo.

The observation confirms that the species is also found in protected areas other than the protected areas mentioned above, increasing its population coverage to more protected areas.

“This also signifies that the species uses more tributaries of the Brahmaputra river to inhabit in addition to the Jia Bhoroli river that flows by the Nameri Tiger Reserve and Pakke Tiger Reserve on the north bank of the Brahmaputra,” researchers associated with the study said. 

Aaranyak researchers, during a field visit to the Manas National Park, came across a large softshell turtle in a stream (Durabeel Nala of Rupahi River), which is located in the transitional area between woodland and grassland. It was sighted around 10 am on May 2, 2021. The turtle was identified as a black softshell turtle using description and taxonomic keys. 

Ivy said the Forest Department of Assam played a huge role in the sighting of the turtle. 

“This paper, co-authored by Pranab Jyoti Nath, a forest guard of Bhuyanpara Range of Manas National Park, is a product of the department’s knowledge and expertise with our scientific tools of writing and reporting,” she said, adding that Nath was the team leader of the field survey team.

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Turtles and their habitats in and around the Manas National Park are threatened by extensive siltation of riverbeds (landslides and mining in the Bhutan hills), overfishing, and catching of turtles for meat consumption. The turtle is facing extensive exploitation, including sustained and targeted egg collection for local consumption. 

“The population of this species might be affected given the above threats over the last 2-3 decades. Systematic efforts are needed to study and monitor this species to understand the ecology, food habit, and conservation threats associated,” the study says.

Experts say little is known about its distribution and much work needs to be done concerning its habitat and ecology. This diurnal large softshell turtle inhabits large rivers and wetlands.

The Manas National Park is located in the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) of Assam in the districts of Baksa and Chirang and is spread over an area of 500 sq km. It is located in the sub-Himalayan landscape of northeastern India, contiguous with the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan, and forms the core of the Indo-Bhutan Transboundary Manas Conservation Area (TraMCA) that covers a 6,500 sq km area. 

It falls under the Key Conservation Area- Jigme Dorji-Manas-Bumdaling conservation landscape in the eastern Himalayan ecoregion.

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