Turtle species thought extinct in the wild discovered in Nagaland

Black Soft-shell turtle classified as Extinct in the Wild by IUCN discovered in the wetlands of Old Akuk village in Wokha district

Imti Longchar
Dimapur | March 22  

In a hugely significant finding, a fresh water turtle species-Black Soft-shell turtle- which is categorized under the Extinct in the Wild (EW) of the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has been discovered in the wetlands of Old Akuk village in Wokha district, Nagaland.  

This was confirmed after results of DNA sample of a turtle resembling the Black Soft-shell species captured from Wokha district, which was sent to Bangalore, arrived in the positive on March 20, 2017.  

The Red List of Threatened Species, compiled by the IUCN, is widely recognised as the most comprehensive, objective global approach for evaluating the conservation status of animal and plant species. Each species assessed is assigned to one of eight different categories, based on a series of quantitative criteria. Species classified as Vulnerable, Endangered and Critically Endangered are regarded as threatened; Extinct in the Wild means that these species are known only to survive in human care.  

Black Soft-shell turtle (scientific name Nilssonia nigricans) is a critically endangered species classified as Extinct in the Wild since 2002 and reported as endemic only to Assam and Bangladesh.  

This turtle was long thought to exist exclusively in one manmade temple pond at the shrine of Sultan al-Arefin Hazrat Bayazid Bistami in Chittagong, Bangladesh where they are dependent on humans for survival. Only recently, the species was confirmed at a few spots in the Brahmaputra River and tributaries in the state of Assam and in some of the region’s temple ponds and tanks including the Kasopukhuri pond on Nilachal Hill, next to the Kamakhya Temple at Guwahati.  

The discovery of this extremely rare species in the wild of Wokha district of Nagaland was made after Lansothung Lotha, a Forest Ranger under the Department of Forests, Ecology, Environment and Wildlife, Nagaland saw a picture of a captive turtle resembling the Black Soft-shell species being circulated in social media platform and decided to investigate the origin of the photograph and possibly rescue the animal if alive.  

The Forest Ranger contacted Steve Odyuo, founder of Natural Nagas, an NGO working for conservation of wildlife and environment based in Wokha for assistance. On inquiry, it was learnt that the turtle, was reportedly caught from Wozhu Tsophow wetlands at Old Akuk village area and already sold to a customer.  

In a joint venture, Steve and Lansothung along with other wild life conservationists Suren Enny, Zanbenthung Enny from Wokha town and Nokten, Assistant Veterinary from Animal Health Care, Dimapur, after several days of gathering information, traced the turtle to one Chonchithung Kikon from Wokha town.  

He had purchased the turtle from a villager with the intention of keeping it as a pet. However, after convincing him that this amphibian could be a very rare species, he willingly handed over the turtle.  

The turtle was then send to the Nagaland Zoological Park in Dimapur and kept under the guardian-ship of Thiru, a Zoo Biologist.  

Since there are other turtle species, which bears resemblance to the Black Soft-shell, for instance the Peacock Soft shell turtle (Nilssoni hurum) and the Indian Soft-shell turtle (Nissoni Gangetica), Lansothung said he dispatched a DNA sample of the captive turtle for confirmation. The DNA sample was initially send to an NGO in Assam, but with no response forthcoming, it was then dispatched to Bangalore.  

The rediscovery of this rare and nearly extinct turtle in the wilds of Nagaland comes as another indication of the rich biodiversity of Nagaland, which harbors a remarkable array of plant and animal species.  

“It is highly likely that there will be more population of the Black Soft-shell turtles from where it comes from,” an excited Lansothung observed while adding that the finding is an important record, not only for the state, but for science as well.  

According to a source from Akuk village, the villagers, unaware of the turtle as a nearly extinct species, had been capturing them from the lake for human consumption and commercial purpose. “At least 5-6 such turtles are captured every year from the wetlands,” the source revealed.  

Lansothung said a proper survey of the habitat where the turtle was found need to be done at the earliest besides earnest awareness and capacity building for turtle conservation in the village communities. 

He also pointed out that it is impossible to bring in conservation without awareness.  

Natural Nagas founder Steve Odyuo said the rediscovery of the rare Black Soft-shell turtle in the wild adds another feather to the rich biodiversity of Nagaland  “The authorities should now put in all efforts to conserve the only natural habitat in the world,” he stated.  

“Biodiversity in Nagaland is so rich that there is a lot to be discovered and documented, efforts have to be made to create awareness, document for the success of conservation,” Steve pointed out.  

The rediscovery of this nearly extinct amphibian gives hope for a species that has been thought to be extinct in the wild.