The elusive Asian giant softshell turtle frequently swims in the sea and gets tangled in nets

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The turtle’s nose and white bony ventral plate resemble the shape and color of the ‘pala’ flower, a type of crepe jasmine

The turtle’s nose and white bony ventral plate resemble the shape and color of the ‘pala’ flower, a type of crepe jasmine

Ayushi Jain believed that the freshwater turtles in India were not getting their due. “So many researchers are working on just four species of sea turtles,” she says. “It’s quite the opposite for freshwater turtles. Only a handful of people work on 24 species. It was shocking to me.

Instead of working on freshwater turtles in general, as these few researchers do, conservation biologist Jain has focused her energies on a little-known secret species, Cantor’s or Asiatic giant softshell turtle. As its name suggests, the olive brown turtle measures up to a meter in length, almost as wide, and ranks as the second largest freshwater turtle in India. Despite its size, it is rarely seen.

When Jain compiled all of the reports ever published on the species by scientists and journalists, the list was only 15 records spanning 45 years. “Most of them were opportunistic records of turtles caught as bycatch,” she says. “No one went looking for him.” Most people don’t even know the turtle. How do you study a rarely seen aquatic creature?

Laze at night

During the day the turtles sit nicely on the logs and rocks along the banks and islands. But not the giant softshell. No one has ever been seen soaking up the sun, leading Jain to suspect it might bask at night like the Krefft river turtle in Australia, which likely wanders away after dark the path of freshwater crocodiles that navigate the rivers. The giant softshell’s supreme reluctance to show itself makes standard investigative techniques unviable.

The true extent of the problem must have dawned on Jain when she staked out a small secluded pond near the Chandragiri River in Kasaragod district, Kerala, where people had reported seeing a huge turtle. Its deceptively small but uniquely shaped nose, which resembles the muzzle of a tiny double-barreled shotgun, broke the surface of the water to get a breath of air only twice a day. To map where the species lives would take several lifetimes or many pairs of eyes.

Fishermen call it “pala poovan”

Many Southeast Asians call it the frog-faced softshell turtle, but Chandragiri fishermen choose to see the beauty, calling it pala poovan since its nose and white bony ventral plate resemble the shape and color of the pala flower, a type of crepe jasmine. After living for months in the village of Kanathur along the Chandragiri and cultivating contacts with the fishing community, Jain began to receive calls on the rare occasion when a pala poovan was inadvertently caught. These were the only occasions to see the animal.

Instead of swimming with the current as other turtles would when released, these immediately buried themselves entirely in the sand of the riverbed, leaving only their noses sticking out. They spent most of their time motionless in this ambush position, and when fish or shrimp passed by, their heads would spin at lightning speed to grab the prey.

More than a desire to stay hidden and their phenomenal ability to hold their breath, something else is decidedly odd about pala poovan. They frequently swim in the sea where some have become entangled in coastal seines. An adult female, about 40 cm long, was hooked 3 km from the coast. Three men had to pull her out of the net. How far can freshwater species travel in the ocean? Does it use the waterfront to move from one river system to another? The answers to these questions are not known.

“Part of its life cycle must be tied to this behavior,” Jain speculates.

In Orissa, researchers have recorded these giant freshwater turtles nesting alongside olive ridley sea turtles on sandy beaches. However, no scientists from other parts of the range have described this behavior. Either these animals don’t nest anywhere else by the sea, or this trend has escaped people’s notice.

The difficulties of studying the elusive pala poovan didn’t deter Jain. Instead, these unique behaviors strengthen her resolve to reveal her secrets and elevate her popularity to the same level as her sea turtle beach mates.

The writer is no conservationist, but many creatures share her home for reasons she has yet to discover.

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