In 1994, the residents of Hajo, a small town in middle Assam, remember congregating around a rickety old wheelbarrow. Later, as the cart moved around the town, so did the small procession — each person wanting to pay their respects and see Mohan one last time.
Mohan, a 40kg jet-black turtle and resident of the pond that lay next to the town’s Hayagriva Madhava Temple, had died. And everyone, who had grown up around the pond, had a “Mohan story” to tell.
Thirty-five-year-old Pranab Malakar remembers how, as a 10-year-old, he and his friend spent all their free time at the pond, feeding the turtle, and sometimes even sitting on it. “Mohan weighed about 40 kgs — he was enormous, bigger than any other turtle that has ever lived in the pond,” says Malakar.
Black softshell turtles, the species Mohan belonged to, were classified as extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red list in 2002. In 2004, after 408 of them were found in the pond of the Bayazid Bastami shrine in Bangladesh, the status was changed to “threatened.”
In the late eighties, research on turtles in Assam was sparse, but Mohan became the star attraction of Hayagriva Madhava Temple. On most days, it was common for devotees to worship at the sanctum sanctorum — a stone structure built in 1583 — and then proceed to the pond, calling out to Mohan. The giant creature, often found sunning himself in the pukhuri paar (or the side of the pond), would heave himself up and approach his visitors, who would gingerly hold out bits of biscuits and fruits for him to eat.
“And he would eat right out of their hands,” says Malakar. Mohan, unlike the other turtles in the pond, would never bite.
Years after Mohan died, 16-year-old Malakar was hired as the “caretaker” of the temple grounds. His job required him to clean the pukhuri, or the pond that lay adjacent to it.
It isn’t uncommon for pukhuris (ponds or ancients tanks commissioned under royal patronage) to be built alongside temples in Assam. Used for ritual bathing and
drinking, these historical reservoirs, have over the years, become hotspots for rich forms of biodiversity, especially turtles. Devotees, since times immemorial, have “donated” turtles to temple ponds in the hope for long and healthy lives. Hindus believe that turtles are an avatar of Lord Vishnu.
“As kids, we were used to having turtles in the ponds. But only later did I really start really studying them,” says Malakar. The caretaker, who has been educated till Class 10, says he was soon obsessing over the reptiles. “I bought a couple of Assamese books, compared pictures and discovered 13 species living in that single pond.”
Today Malakar is the man on the ground for the state’s only turtle conservation project aided by Guwahati-based NGO Help Earth. The project had its first major success in January when it introduced a batch of 35 black softshell turtles back to where it belonged: in the wild.
Help Earth’s turtle conservation project started in 2011 with a $5,000 grant from the Abu Dhabi-based Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund after much running around by its members. “Turtles are not tigers and rhinos. It is difficult to get funds for them,” says Jayaditya Purkayastha, Founder, HelpEarth. “Both tigers and turtles are Schedule I animals — a classification under the Wildlife Protection Act that identifies these creatures as threatened. If a tiger is killed, it is front page news but if a turtle dies, it is not even a news item.”
Among the 328 species of turtles around the world, there are 29 in India. “And Assam has 20 alone,” says Purkayastha. Over the years, temple ponds had emerged, though unintentionally, as sites for turtle conservation. “But it was more ‘spiritual’ conservation rather than ‘scientific.’ People were feeding them biscuits and chips! Nobody was harming them or killing them but they were not breeding properly either,” says Purkayastha.
The group is now doing full-time conservation in 18 temple ponds across Assam, the focus areas being Ugratora temple and Kamakhya in Guwahati, and Hayagriva Madhava Temple in Hajo. “The busier the temple, the more the (turtle) donations,” says Purkayastha, adding that theirs is essentially a “reintroduction” project. In the Hajo pond, where Malakar works, there are 14 out of 20 species alone.
BACK TO THE WILD
The most tangible outcome of Help Earth’s initiative has been setting up of “egg-incubation rooms” in two temples — Hajo and Ugratora. It is here that the eggs are reared, before being moved to the Assam Zoo and then being reintroduced into the wild: either the Brahmaputra or Barak rivers, the two major rivers that flow through Assam.
Most ponds have a concrete periphery which is a major hindrance for turtles laying eggs. “I would find a lot of scar marks on the underside of the turtles — it is because they were trying to come up to lay eggs, and in the process, scratching themselves,” says Malakar. In 2010, when a local news channel had visited the temple, Malakar brought this up and also pointed out the government’s apathy towards these creatures.
While the authorities were initially unhappy with Malakar for “not sticking to his actual job”, he soon became friends with the conservationists who occasionally visit. “Once, someone took me to a conference on turtles in Guwahati, well-attended by many scholars. I stood up and asked them a question about when turtles lay eggs. None of them could answer.”
It was then that Malakar was called to the front of the room. “They asked me who I was. When I told them, they asked me how many species lived in the Hajo pond. And I rattled off the names,” he recalls.
Since then, Malakar has become the go-to man for any turtle query in Assam. The caretaker says there were many efforts to start a conservation programme but it was only when he teamed up with Purkayashta in 2016 (incidentally at a conference) that the process actually began.
In January, when the first batch of turtles was released into the Handuk Beel of the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, among the many smiling faces, including top forest officials, was Malakar’s.
According to Purkayashta, the project has worked so well in Hajo only because of Malakar. “We need Malakars not just in Hajo but in all the temple ponds in Assam.”
‘TURTLES RULE MY LIFE’
On a Sunday morning, a huge model of the black soft-shell turtle stands outside the Hayagriva Madhava temple in Hajo. “This is our ‘flagship’ species because at one point, they were thought to be extinct,” says Purkayastha. At the edge of the pond, many youngsters try to take selfies with, and feed the turtles, after buying “turtle feed” from a tiny shop on the premises. Chips and biscuits have been banned.
Malakar, meanwhile, is busy in the egg incubation room tending to a new batch. “Sometimes, when I am on egg protection duty, I forget to eat,” he says, with a laugh. The caretaker has a three-year-old at home and admits that he is guilty of leaving him with his mother to come tend to the turtles. “What to do — these turtles, they rule my life,” he says.