The Endangered Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle

by Shashank Dalvi
Shashank Dalvi

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The narrow headed soft shell, a giant among freshwater turtles, is extensively hunted for its calipee and fibrocartilage, which are shipped via Bangladesh or Nepal to China for the manufacture of traditional medicines and soups.

The Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle (Chitra indica) of the family Trionychidae, is an extremely large, highly aquatic species. It is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, and placed in Schedule II of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. It is widely but patchily distributed throughout the riverine ecosystems of the Indian subcontinent. The Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle does not appear to exist at high densities anywhere in its range. Its specialized dietary and habitat requirements make it especially vulnerable to habitat modification caused by human activities.

Their diet consists of fish, frog, crustaceans, and molluscs. This species has evolved a highly specialized morphology for ambush feeding. Interestingly it breeds during the monsoon in central India alone and during dry seasons in the rest of its distribution. It lays a large clutch (65-193 eggs).

This turtle is threatened by human exploitation (for meat and other parts) and modifications of its riverine habitat. In India, it is poached with the help of un-baited thousand-hook-lines and also with large seine nets set close to the mouths of rivers, their tributaries and small creeks. Although its meat is reported to be coarse and was generally not valued as much as that of the other Trionychids during early 1900s, significant numbers were traded in India for consumption up to the 1980s.

The species is now extensively hunted for its calipee (yellowish material found inside the lower side of a turtle’s carapace), and the fibrocartilage (leathery outer margin of the shell). After boiling and drying, it is shipped via Bangladesh or Nepal to China, for the manufacture of traditional medicines and soups. An adult turtle weighing 30 kg can yield only 650gm of calipee. In the year 2009, 1kg of dried cartilage was priced at Indian Rupees 2000 from local turtle traders and at Indian Rupees 3500 from middlemen. Local riverine communities on the Ganga River also consume eggs and the flesh of this species.

Other than a captive breeding programme there are no concrete conservation measures taken for the protection of this species in India.

This image was taken along the Brahmaputra river in Assam in Oct 2014.

Information compiled from the paper Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle (2009) by Indraneil Das and Shailendra Singh.

About the author

Shashank Dalvi

Shashank is an alumnus of the MSc. Wildlife Biology and Conservation Program (NCBS, WCS-India) and currently works with Wildlife Conservation Society - India, Bangalore.



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