Portsmouth scientists stumble upon endangered 'softshell' turtles in India

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Cantors giant softshell turtle can be seen in this image which was discovered by a team of the University of Portsmouth. — Journal Oryx/Ayushi Jain
Cantor's giant softshell turtle can be seen in this image which was discovered by a team of the University of Portsmouth. — Journal Oryx/Ayushi Jain

Experts from the University of Portsmouth discovered an incredibly rare species of turtle in India which is classified by conservations as endangered.

The breeding secret nest of Cantor's giant softshell turtle was found on the banks of the Chandragiri River in Kerala.

These soft turtles are native to the rivers of south and southeast Asia.

According to a spokesperson of the University of Portsmouth, the species was known for its "rarity and secretive nature". 

The spokesperson also noted that it had "long been a subject of fascination and concern among conservationists.”

"For years, the Cantor turtle's existence has barely been a murmur against the backdrop of India's bustling biodiversity, with sightings so scarce that the turtle's very presence seemed like a ghost from the past," said Dr Francoise Cabada-Blanco, from the university's school of biological sciences.

The university spokesperson added: "Habitat destruction has made it disappear from much of its environment. They are also heavily harvested by locals for meat and are often killed by fishermen when caught in fishing gear.”

Earlier, there were several attempts to track the species with the help of scientific methods. This time they applied a different approach to trace the egg-laying species — applying local knowledge —they were successful.

Dr Cabada-Blanco — who is also the author of the study published in the journal Oryx — also said that the team was able to "engage the community really effectively", with locals sharing tales of historical sightings, and even "aiding in the live release of individuals accidentally caught as by-catch.”

For the first time, the female nest of the fresh-water species and the rescue of eggs was documented. Hatchlings were released into the river afterwards.

Cantor's giant softshell turtles are over 1m in length and weigh more than 100kg (220lb).

The Portsmouth team is eyeing to establish a community hatchery and nursery adjacent to the site of their discovery.

Ayushi Jain from the Zoological Society of London's Edge of Existence Programme said: "The community's willingness to engage formed the backbone of our project, allowing us to record not just fleeting glimpses of the turtles but evidence of a reproductive population — a discovery that rewrites the narrative of a species thought to be vanishing from India's waters."