India has an old tradition of holistic conservation where a wild species is considered as form of god or devotee of god, protected from any kind of harm. These places play very crucial role in supporting the over all survival of the species and act as a stock of genes replenishing wild population. Some of these traditionally conserved species are globally threatened like Indian Soft Shelled Turtle (Asperadetus gangeticus); these “Vultures of Water” are now facing threat of extinction due to over hunting for meat and habitat destruction owing to various anthropogenic activities. Beside the threatened status, these turtles have historically received religious protection in many temple water tanks in Orissa. Maneshwar is one of the religious places where these other wise susceptible animals find a safe shelter. These turtles also get protection in places other than Maneshwar like Narendra kunda of Puri, Champeshwar in Cuttak district and Golia in Ganjam District. They are also protected in the temples outside the Orissa like Kamakhya temple at Guwahati and Gangetic softshell turtles in the Tripureshwari temple at Udaiput, Tripura, Shiva temple at Tinisukia, where they are naturally distributed.
Status of Indian Soft Shelled or Ganges Soft Shelled Turtles (Asperadetus gangeticus)

The species Indian Soft Shelled Turtles or Ganges Soft Shelled is distributed in large river systems like Mahanadi, Ganges and Indus. These also occur in large ponds and water bodies. From ecological perspective the fresh water turtles are very important due to vast array of their diet, generally they are carnivorous especially attract towards rotting flesh and are known to be fairly adaptive to an array of food including cooked food. These turtles are scavengers and often referred as 'vultures in water' which help in reducing organic matter in the water body by consuming decomposing matter especially dead animals, which otherwise create conducive environment for other annoying pest affecting health. They are intricately associated with the web of life since they release nutrients locked up in dead animal tissue, and thus keep rivers and water bodies clean. They ensure populations of healthy and commercially valuable species by feeding upon dead and sick fish. They also help to control water weeds, such as the water hyacinth and control pests like mosquitoes. This trait of turtles makes them ecologically valuable, population decline of which can result into dire environmental consequences. That will affect thousand of fishermen fishing in Mahanadi river system, where these turtles keep river ecosystem balanced.

Easter India is the prime market for turtle meat, all species of turtles and tortoises in India are under threat owing to their over exploitation for flesh, the condition is so bad that now it is difficult to sight single individual where there were thousands of them few years ago. This species is also threatened due to habitat destruction caused by pollution, urban expansions, dredging of water bodies (especially river bank that results into destruction of nesting grounds) and many more. All of this is resulting into sharp fall in their population generating grate concern in the perspective of environmental health.

The conservation attempt
The village Maneshwar is situated about 8Km from Sambalpur town towards Bhubanswar. It got the name Maneshwar because of presence of the three century old “Maneshwar” temple of “Lord Shiva”, which is one of the important Hindu shrines. However the fresh water turtles present in the temple water tank is a unique feature of the temple that attracts lots of people all over the Orissa.

According to local people there are about one thousand adult turtles and enumerable juveniles in the temple water tank, that measure about 2.5ha.- 3.0ha. This water tank is attached to the temple and it fulfills all the water requirements of temple and other domestic needs of surrounding population. The water tank is surrounded by temple on one side and earthen bund on three sides, with stone made embankments at two places for use, however there are some submerged rock surfaces inside the water tank specially favored by turtles for “Basking”(Sunbathing). During winters water decreased water level exposes surrounding surface and hundreds of basking turtles can be observed on it. This three century old temple was build by former king Balaram, the present population is descendents of few turtles released by King Balaram, at the time of temple construction.
Though turtles are protected through religious belief, many people love them and want that they could live safely in the pond. The turtles might be released due to religious belief or for beautification and maintenance of water tank. May be the King was aware about trait of the turtles as an important component of pond freshwater ecosystem clean the water. Thus there is a symbiotic association between turtles and humans, where turtles get protection and in turn keep water clean.

The people of Maneshwar has played vary important role in conservation of these turtles. Here turtles get religious importance, affection, sacredness and protection, though this all is due to religious belief attached to this species, but it is proving effective in conservation of otherwise vulnerable species. There is belief in people that who ever kill or eat turtles from temple water tank will suffer from misfortune, therefore nobody dare to hurt them. Instead people feed these turtles on temple “Bhog”, puffed rice, biscuits etc. the turtles are special attraction for devotees coming. Some regular visitors and permanent residents of temple have established special chemistry with turtle, with understanding of turtle behavior, which will defiantly help in scientific assessment and conservation of this species.

Furthermore banks of water tank work as nesting ground for turtles, ensuring survival of population, the banks are also devoid of disturbances like cattle washing, which ensure protection of eggs from cattle stamped. This water tank is attached with river “Malati-jhor” through water channel and a water canal adjacent to tank is attached to river; there is network o water canals meant for irrigation. This network allows movement of turtles outside tank during rainy season when water level is high, thus we can say that the gene pool of population of turtles is not only confined to tank but, there is gene flow of species ensuring endurance of the species. Moreover who ever get turtle in nearby area (generally in rainy season turtles disperse in nearby agricultural fields) release it into the temple tank. Hence the tank is proving to be a holistic system holding stock of endangered species.

The major threat identified by temple committee is siltation of water tank. The tank is facing natural aging process, through accumulation of silt and debris; this is resulting into reduced water holding capacity. The temple committee is proposing renovation of tank through removal of accumulated debris and silt from the tank. However the renovation work is pending as committee is concerned about turtles, as cleaning and excavation operation will cause harm to turtles and there breeding grounds. Therefore they are planning phase wise renovation of tank, where there will be minimal harm to the turtles.

Research Team:
Smita Ranjane, Vasundhara
Jijnyasu Panda, MASS, Sambalpur