India’s digital approach to turtle conservation - GulfToday

India’s digital approach to turtle conservation

Meena Janardhan

Writer/Editor/Consultant. She has over 25 years of experience in the fields of environmental journalism and publishing.

Writer/Editor/Consultant. She has over 25 years of experience in the fields of environmental journalism and publishing.


The photo has been used for illustrative purposes.

A mobile-based application called KURMA was launched for turtle conservation in India on May 23, 2020, which is celebrated globally as World Turtle Day.

A 2019 report by TRAFFIC, an international wildlife trade monitoring organisation, showed that at least 11,000 tortoises and freshwater turtles fall prey to illicit poaching and smuggling every year, adding up to over 111,130 turtles poached or smuggled between September 2009 and September 2019.

Turtles are one of the most threatened groups of vertebrates – India is home to 28 species of non-marine Chelonians, of which 54% are listed as Threatened in the IUCN Red List. Most smuggled species include the Indian Star Tortoise, the Indian Softshell Turtle, the Indian Flapshell Turtle and the black spotted or Spotted Pond Turtle.

Habitat destruction, in particular the loss of wetlands, has caused many populations to decline to unsustainable levels. Pets fetch a high price, which makes it difficult for rural community members to resist. They are traded for traditional medicine and as meat, as well, and harmed by the spread of new pathogens.

The application has been developed by the Indian Turtle Conservation Action Network (ITCAN) in collaboration with the Turtle Survival Alliance-India (TSA) and the Wildlife Conservation Society-India.

It serves as a digital database, with a built-in digital field guide covering 29 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises of India, and information on turtle identification, distribution, vernacular names, and threats. Its objective is to provide a database to identify a species, the location of the nearest rescue centre for turtles across the country and more information on the reported species and its conservation. Once a sizable database is ready, KURMA will start identifying species automatically through artificial intelligence.

The TSA was formed in 2001 as an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) partnership for sustainable captive management of freshwater turtles and tortoises. The TSA arose in response to the rampant and unsustainable harvest of Asian turtle populations to supply Chinese markets, a situation known as the Asian Turtle Crisis. Its mission was to achieve ‘Zero Turtle Extinctions in the 21st Century’.

Tortoise and freshwater turtles are among the most trafficked in the country. One of the major challenges for freshwater turtle conservation in the country is that wildlife crime prevention agencies are not sufficiently equipped to know how to distinguish one species from the other. They are also not aware of their protection status in accordance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

Tortoises and turtles are some of the oldest of all living reptiles. Freshwater turtles and tortoises are referred to as the ‘non-marine’ chelonians (a group of shelled animals) as they lack the adaptation to survive in seawater. Out of the 28 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises found in India, eight are found in Karnataka and three of these are endemic to South India.

Freshwater turtles majorly aquatic and spend most of their time in water. To swim effectively in water, their digits are webbed and they surface up for breathing. Primarily carnivorous, most species lay their eggs on river banks and in sand or soil, but a few species lay their eggs in mud under the water itself. Their average lifespan is 20-40 years. Freshwater turtles that spend their time in both water and on land are called terrapins.

Turtles are often known as the vultures of freshwater ecosystems – many species are scavengers and omnivores feeding on dead and decaying organic material in water, while the herbivore species prevent algal blooms and eutrophication. They play a crucial role in the food web of aquatic ecosystems, and nutrient recycling.

While turtles are more or less dependent on water, tortoises dwell mostly on land. Their limbs are thick and column-like. They are primarily herbivores. They lay eggs by digging the soil and concealing their eggs in it. Their lifespan can be up to 150 years.

Most of the turtles and tortoise species of India are protected under various Schedules of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, under which hunting, trade or any other form of utilization of the species or their body parts and derivatives is banned. All turtle and tortoise species from India are also listed under CITES regulating their international trade.

Recently, under CITES, the Indian Star Tortoise was moved up on the threatened category owing to its over-exploitation. It is listed as Vulnerable (VU) by the IUCN Red list of Threatened Species.

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