Indian temple helps nurture ‘extinct’ turtle back to life

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The northeastern state of Assam was once rich in freshwater turtles, but habitat loss and over-exploitation — they were once an abundant and popular local food — has massively depleted their populations. (AFP)
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The black softshell turtle is officially extinct in the wild but a centuries-old temple in India, the adjoining pond and its nature-loving caretaker are helping it make a tentative comeback. (AFP)
Updated 11 June 2019
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Indian temple helps nurture ‘extinct’ turtle back to life

  • The northeastern state of Assam was once rich in freshwater turtles, but habitat loss and over-exploitation depleted their population
  • The black softshell turtle was declared extinct in the wild in 2002

HAJO, India: The black softshell turtle is officially extinct in the wild, but a centuries-old Indian temple and its nature-loving caretaker are helping the creature make a tentative comeback.
The northeastern state of Assam was once rich in freshwater turtles, but habitat loss and over-exploitation — they were once a popular local food — have massively depleted their population.
The black softshell turtle was declared extinct in the wild in 2002 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, while the Indian softshell turtle and the Indian peacock softshell turtle are classified as vulnerable.
But all the while, the pond of the Hayagriva Madhav temple in the Hajjo pilgrimage center has provided a safe haven, thanks to the sacred status of turtles protecting them from harm.
“There are plenty of turtles in the temple pond,” said Jayaditya Purkayastha, from conservation group Good Earth.
The group has teamed up with the temple authorities in a breeding program.
“The population of the turtle in Assam has gone down by a great extent. So we thought we needed to intervene and do something to save the species from extinction,” he told AFP.
In January his organization’s first batch of 35 turtle hatchlings, including 16 black softshells hand-reared at the temple, was released into a nearby wildlife sanctuary.
A key figure is the caretaker of the temple pond, Pranab Malakar, who long before environmentalists became involved took a keen interest in the turtles’ wellbeing.
“I used to take care of them as I like them. Later, after I became associated with Good Earth, it became my responsibility,” he said.
“No one harms them here as they are incarnations of Lord Vishnu (a Hindu deity). I was born and grew up here. We have been seeing the turtles since our childhood. People respect them,” he said.
Malakar collects eggs laid by the turtles on the sandy banks of the pond — a new concrete bank had to be demolished a few years ago — and gingerly puts them into an incubator.
The project has been so successful that Good Earth has identified 18 other temple ponds in the area which could also be used for similar initiatives.
But it is not without its challenges.
For one thing, some of the hundreds of daily visitors to the temple outside Guwahati throw bread and other food to the turtles — which they clearly like.
“This has triggered some biological changes among the turtles in the pond. They have also lost their natural tendency of hunting for food,” Purkayastha said.


Ancient Afghan citadel collapses, cultural heritage sites at risk

Updated 15 June 2019
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Ancient Afghan citadel collapses, cultural heritage sites at risk

  • The old citadel known as Ghaznain Fort originally had 36 towers, but 14 of the towers had collapsed in recent years
  • The fort is one of dozens of unique historic sites in Afghanistan in urgent need of protection

GHAZNI, Afghanistan: An ancient tower dating back 2,000 years in the historic Afghan city of Ghazni collapsed this week, local officials said, raising concerns about the vulnerability of the country’s cultural heritage and the government’s ability to protect them.
The old citadel known as Ghaznain Fort originally had 36 towers, but 14 of the towers had collapsed in recent years due to decades of war, heavy rain and neglect.
The fort is one of dozens of unique historic sites in Afghanistan — ranging from the pre-Islamic Buddhist center in the Bamyan valley to the 12th century minaret of Jam in a remote area of Ghor province — in urgent need of protection.
Officials in Ghazni, which nearly fell to the Taliban last year in some of the heaviest fighting seen in the war, said the tower collapsed on Tuesday following heavy rain. A short video posted on social media shows it crumbling but local residents say negligence also contributed to its collapse.
“The government paid no attention to the sites and didn’t build canals to divert flood water,” said Ghulam Sakhi, who lives near the citadel.
“We have warned the government about the dire condition of the citadel but no one visited,” Sakhi said.
Mahbubullah Rahmani, acting director of culture and information in Ghazni, said heavy rain and recent fighting had contributed to the tower’s collapse but said the government was working on a plan to protect the site from complete destruction.
He said a German archaeologist had worked at the site as recently as 2013.
Ghazni, a strategically vital center on the main highway between Kabul and southern Afghanistan and two hour drive from the capital, is home to a range of cultural and archaeological artefacts, some of which date back to pre-Islamic period.
The province and its cultural heritage was officially declared as Asian Capital of Islamic Culture in 2013 by the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, a Morocco-based body created in 1981, supported by UNESCO.
The collapse of the tower in Ghazni follows concern over the condition of the 900-year-old Minaret of Jam, in Ghor, which has been on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Properties in Danger since 2002.
The Taliban during their austere regime from 1996-2001, before they were toppled by the US and coalition force in late 2001, blew up two giant Buddha statues in central Bamiyan province, calling them idols.