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How a chance rescue in Arunachal Pradesh led to the discovery of a new tortoise species

The first-ever sighting of the elusive Manouria impressa or Impressed Tortoise in an Arunachal Pradesh forest will give a boost to the field of turtle conservation in Northeast India.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: June 25, 2019 9:37:48 pm
The signing of the Manouria impress in Arunachal Pradesh will give a boost to turtle conservation in the Northeast. Photo Courtesy: Jayaditya Purkayastha.

Four days back, when Bunty Tao, a ranger under the Hapoli forest division in Arunachal Pradesh’s Kamle district, saw the tortoise, it was buried in the arms of a villager. 

“They were taking it home — possibly to make a meal out of it,” says the 47-year-old Tao, who then decided to intervene. “I immediately asked them to hand it over. ‘Hunting is wrong’ — I told them before riding off.” 

Tao, who joined the forest department as an 18-year-old almost three decades ago, then fed the tortoise and kept him in a forested plot of land near his home. But before that he took a picture and sent it to ‘Arunachal Against Hunting’, one of the many wildlife-related Whatsapp groups he is a part of.

“I’ve seen turtles and tortoises before, but I knew this one was special. It looked grand and impressive,” says Tao. Little did he know his chance rescue would spell what could be potentially be a new chapter in history of turtle conservation in the Northeast. 

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When someone on the group forwarded Tao’s picture to Jayaditya Purkayastha, a Guwahati-based reptile specialist, the latter couldn’t help but get excited. Purkayastha was “99 per cent convinced” that it was a picture of the Manouria impressa — a species of tortoise which was elusive, vulnerable, and most importantly, had never been sighted in India.

“But I didn’t want to get ahead of myself, so I decided to visit the site,” says Purkayastha.

Bunty Tao’s rescue led to the discovery of the species for the first time in India. Photo Courtesy: Bunty Tao.

On Sunday, guided by the villagers, Purkayastha along with a team of surveyors (including Tao and  Dr Bharat Bhushan Bhatt, a herpetologist based in Arunachal Pradesh and Dr Shailendra Singh and Arpita Dutta from Turtle Survival Alliance), visited the montane forests of Yazali in the Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh, and found not one, but two of these creatures. 

The animals were examined, marked and photographed before being released in their original habitats. The exercise was enough for the experts to confirm that it was indeed the Manouria impressa, or the Impressed Tortoise, for long known to have been found only in Western Myanmar.

“This discovery will go a long way in giving a boost to turtle conservation in the Northeast,” says Purkayastha, who runs Help Earth in Guwahati—the prime mover behind the conservation-breeding program of turtles residing in temple ponds across Assam.

While they are reptiles from the same family (Testudines or Chelonian), tortoises differ from turtles on account of being terrestrial animals. But it is common for conservationists to club the former with the latter for academic purposes.

Among the 29 species of turtles around the world, there are 20 in Assam alone.“With this discovery, the count goes up to 21 in the Northeast region: 20 in Assam, and one in Arunachal Pradesh,” says Purkayastha.

It’s a significant development because there have been no concerted efforts to investigate and survey turtles in Northeast India. “Western Ghats and the Northeast are the two main biodiversity hotspots for turtles. Yet the scale of investigations differ in both. While full-scale expeditions are carried out there, barely any surveys have been done here,” says Purkayastha.

While this is a sighting and not a discovery, it still means a lot for the turtle conservation space. “Sighting say, a snake or an insect for the first time, is not such a big deal. But when it comes to turtles, you are dealing with one of the most threatened, under-studied animals of the world,” says Purkayastha. 

The sighting of the Manouria impressa, the 29th turtle species in India, will account for a 5 per cent increase in the diversity of the species in the country.

Found in Myanmar, along with pockets in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Malaysia, the Impressed Tortoise is an elusive, medium-sized species. Photo Courtesy: Bunty Tao.

Found in Myanmar, as well as pockets of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Malaysia, the Impressed Tortoise is an elusive, medium-sized  species that inhabits moist, primary forests of hilly tracts. There is only one other species under this genus, the Manouria Emys.

“The Impressed Tortoise measures one feet, and has a ‘brilliant’ spine — bent upwards and beautifully serrated,” says Purkayastha, “It’s a magnificent looking creature  — impressive in colour and shape. That is why it’s called the Impressed Tortoise, in the first place.”

In all probability the tortoise must have been around for years in Arunachal Pradesh — and the fact that it had not been spotted till now is a clear indicator of the lack of research in the field.

“The message came to me only because one man (Tao) was curious. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have messaged, and we would have never found out,” says Purkayastha.

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