Saving Nepal's rare tortoisesCritically endangered Elongated Tortoise fails to gain conservation priority even as it nears extinction worldwide
The critically endangered Elongated Tortoise (Indotestudo elongata) is one of the 17 species of turtles found in Nepal. Native to South and Southeast Asia, it is also known as the Yellow-Headed Tortoise, Ground Tortoise, Golden Tortoise and ठोटरी.
Its habitat is spread across Nepal and the reptile spends most of its life hiding under dry leaves in sal forests, bushes or bamboo groves. It feeds primarily on flowers and fruits, mushroom, and smaller organisms like earthworms, snails and slugs.
Turtles are some of the most threatened creatures with half of the 356 species found worldwide listed as threatened.
While in Nepali they are all called कछुवा, the distinction is made between whether the animal is aquatic (turtle) or terrestrial (tortoise). Morphologically, turtles have webbed feet for swimming and they come to land only to lay eggs, while tortoises have club-like forelegs and 'elephantine' hind legs, are heavier and cannot swim. In Nepal, Indotestudo elongata is the only entirely terrestrial tortoise.
According to the IUCN, several species of the Testudine order of reptiles, which includes tortoises and turtles, are more endangered than tigers, snow leopards, elephants or rhinos.
However, as governments, organisations and researchers prioritise the study and conservation of larger charismatic mammals, turtles and tortoises are largely overshadowed.
Popular for its meat and eggs, the shy Elongated Tortoise is also reared in homes as it is considered lucky and auspicious, an incarnation of Vishnu and bearer of wealth, and is often left in monasteries. Its meat is also believed to have medicinal properties, but the curative and religious benefits are scientifically inconclusive.
Adding to the challenge is the mass harvesting of the remaining wild populations for the growing food markets in China and East Asia, where it is incorrectly believed that a mixture, made by grinding up the tortoise's shell, serves as an aphrodisiac.
IUCN notes that the Indotestudo elongata has declined across its range by at least 80% in the last 90 years as a result of habitat loss alone, and has additionally been extensively and intensively exploited for consumption and export trade.
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The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) states that Elongated Tortoise’s transport and trade without a permit is punishable by 2-10 years of imprisonment or a fine of Rs100,000–500,000, or both.
But in Nepal, the Elongated Tortoise is still not listed as an endangered species, even as it nears extinction globally. However, the National Parks and Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, which specifies that it is illegal to kill, trade or transport any species of tortoises without a permit, punishable by one to 10 years of imprisonment or a fine of Rs40,000–75,000, or both.
Even then, haphazard harvesting and online buying and selling through platforms such as Facebook is still rampant, as the Commercial Wildlife Husbandry and Breeding Standards, 2021, authorises the rearing of turtles without specifying the species. Government statistics also do not detail turtle smuggling, making it difficult to trace the origin of certain species and their location once they are sold, putting Elongated Tortoises at increased risk.
This makes the conservation of tortoises in Nepal all the more important. World Turtle Day is observed every 23 May, and it is necessary to continue to spread public awareness to protect the shelled reptiles and their habitats, and to dispel any misconception about them.
Wildlife conservation in Nepal is largely focused on tigers and rhinos, but it is equally imperative that we turn to smaller tortoises and turtles that play a significant role in biodiversity. They help disperse seeds of plants, keep the environment clean by eating insects and dead animals that may cause disease, and help maintain balance in the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.
Conservation work is currently taking place in Jhapa's Turtle Rescue and Conservation Centre, Chitwan and Bardia National Parks, and on smaller scales in other places. But it is a matter of urgency that more rescue and conservation centres were set up in other parts of the country. As it is, seven species of turtles and tortoises have already become extinct in the world.
Breeding programs are also underway in Jhapa Conservation Centre and Chitwan National Park, but they may not be enough to save the Elongated Tortoise from poachers and habitat destruction.
Conservation efforts must include creating an action plan for conservation, implementing laws and regulations related to wildlife protection, spreading public awareness, helping them breed in a protected area, and ultimately releasing them into the wild with monitoring.
Asmita Shrestha is a researcher of tortoises with Greenhood Nepal.