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Chance rescue turns out to be first record of elusive tortoise species in India

Impressed tortoise. Image courtesy of Shailendra Singh.

  • Two tortoises that a range officer in Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India rescued from a group of boys turned out to be the impressed tortoise (Manouria impressa), an elusive species that has never been recorded in India before.
  • Researchers who have studied the reptile in Myanmar say the high-elevation habitat in Arunachal Pradesh where the tortoises were found is quite similar to that in Myanmar.
  • Very little is known about impressed tortoises, and researchers and the range officer hope that a long-term survey will be launched to find more individuals of the species in India.
  • For now, the two rescued individuals have been sent to a zoo in the state’s capital.

It was a chance encounter. But it turned Bunty Tao’s life around.

In mid-June, a group of boys were heading back from a fishing trip to a forest near the town of Yazali in Arunachal Pradesh state in northeast India, when Tao, a range officer with the state forest department, noticed that they had two tortoises with them.

“I don’t know why they had taken the tortoises from the forest, whether out of curiosity or something else, but I told them they couldn’t keep the animals,” Tao told Mongabay.

Tao took the tortoises away and put them in a small forested plot near his house until the authorities could take a decision on the reptiles. The tortoises had golden-hued shells ⁠— a color Tao had not seen on tortoises from the area before. So he sent photographs of the individuals to an anti-hunting WhatsApp group he’s a member of, hoping someone would help identify the species. The group members forwarded the photos to other experts, and in a few days, Jayaditya Purkayastha, a herpetologist based in the neighboring state of Assam, came back with an answer. The rescued tortoises, he said, looked like the impressed tortoise (Manouria impressa), an elusive species that had never been recorded in India before.

Bunty Tao with the rescued tortoises. Image courtesy of Bunty Tao.

Purkayastha and other experts, including Shailendra Singh and Arpita Dutta of the nonprofit Turtle Survival Alliance, rushed to Arunachal Pradesh, examined the tortoises in question, and confirmed that the reptiles were indeed impressed tortoises.

Until recently, the impressed tortoise has been known from the high-elevation mountainous forests of Myanmar, southern China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia. There, the reptile prefers the moist forest floor with lots of leaf litter, Singh told Mongabay. “They eat things like mushrooms on the forest floor. They also bury into the leaves and tend to camouflage with the forest floor.”

Singh, who has studied the impressed tortoise in Myanmar, said the habitat in Arunachal Pradesh where the tortoises were found is quite similar to that in Myanmar. “So it shouldn’t be a surprise to find more such animals along the Indo-Myanmar border,” he said. “What is surprising is that the tortoises weren’t found before because so many people would have visited the forest in the past.”

Tao, however, said the tortoise may have always been in the area, “but before this nobody probably took the initiative to identify it,” he said. “It is like an apple falling from a tree. I’m a range officer, I’m passionate about wildlife, and I was curious to find out what it was, so I posted it for identification. ”

The high-elevation habitat in Arunachal Pradesh where the impressed tortoises were collected from is similar to that in Myanmar where the species is also found. Image courtesy of Shailendra Singh.

With very little known about impressed tortoises, Singh said he hopes that a long-term survey will be launched to find more individuals of the species in India.

“Finding two individuals and identifying them is fine, but the critical thing to do is to go look and see if there is a ecologically viable population residing in that area,” he said. “If that population is there, then we have to collect scientific data on it and try and protect it.”

As for the two individuals themselves, they have been sent to a zoo in Itanagar, the state capital. Singh said the species doesn’t do very well in captivity, though. “They need moist environment, a special diet and they are very delicate. They also don’t like too much handling,” he said.

Researchers examining the rescued impressed tortoises. Image by Jhonson Tao.

Tao, on his way to visit the tortoises at the Itanagar biological park, said that with the identification part of the story now over, research was needed. “But it is for the forest department to decide,” he said.

“The IUCN tortoise and freshwater turtle specialist group recently sent us a letter of appreciation, lauding the efforts of the forest department for finding the species,” Tao said. “They even offered their technical support if the department wanted to initiate a conservation effort for the species.”

Tao said he hopes the discovery of the tortoise in June and the attention it’s bringing will translate to conservation efforts on the ground.

“I feel incredibly happy to be part of this history,” Tao said. “I’m a tribal boy and I feel that we tribal people should be involved in research because we can use our traditional knowledge for conservation. I think we can convert this opportunity to create bigger conservation projects, such as a sustainable ecotourism project that can help protect wildlife and help us earn a livelihood.”

The rescued impressed tortoises. Image courtesy of Shailendra Singh.

Banner image of impressed tortoise courtesy of Shailendra Singh.

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