Critically Endangered Black Softshells Return to the Wild

For the first time ever, juvenile headstarted Black Softshell Turtles (Nilssonia nigricans) from Nagshankar Temple’s captive adult population were released into the wild—22 of them in all. Saucer-shaped and adorned with peacock spots, these youngsters are the wild future for this, one of the world’s most endangered turtles. Regarded, until recently, as Extinct in the Wild*, this weekend’s release in Assam, India, was a historic moment for both the turtles and those working for their conservation.

This Saturday, under clear, sunny skies, a large contingent of conservationists, wildlife officers, temple authority members, government officials, and community citizens gathered on a bluff on the Brahmaputra River’s north bank to commemorate the momentous occasion. Following the ceremony, the group, turtles in tote, walked down the embankment to perform the historic release. One by one, the small, snorkel-snouted turtles were gently placed on the shoreline before scurrying off and disappearing into their new riverine oxbow home. Although their entry into the waters of their species’ historic range was rapid, the creation of the moment itself was anything but.

Since 2013, the TSA/WCS India Program has acted as a catalyst for the rewilding of the critically endangered Black Softshell to the Brahmaputra Floodplain. Historically native to large rivers and their tributaries of India and Bangladesh, hunting of the once-prolific turtle for its meat pushed them to the brink of extinction. No wild populations were known to exist until the mid-2000s when a few small remnant populations were discovered inhabiting the vast Brahmaputra River basin. Captive turtles did exist, however.

The majority of the world's Black Softshell Turtles live in sacred temple ponds in India and Bangladesh. In India, Nagshankar Mandir houses the largest captive population in the country, an existence created by centuries of Assamese “donating turtles” to the temple for religious purposes. Through steadfast engagement, the TSA/WCS India Program has assisted Nagshankar and other temple committees with the care of their turtles, and incubation and hatching of eggs, while pursuing the goal of utilizing the captive turtle populations for a wild recovery effort.

Despite other hardships endured during 2020, that goal was realized this summer. In August, a historic event was witnessed with the relocation of hatchling Black Softshells from Nagshankar Temple to a grow-out facility at our TSA/WCS India Program’s Nature Discovery Centre (NDC) in Assam. This marked the first time individuals of the species had been transferred from the temple to a specialized turtle facility for their conservation use.

For the past 5 months, the turtles have been headstarted at the NDC. Headstarting is a process in which the animals are grown to a larger size through optimal care, with the intent of decreasing their probability of predation following release. The head start effort is part of the newly created "Return to the Wild” program, a collaborative between the TSA/WCS India Program, Nagshankar Temple committee, Assam Forest Department, Sonitpur East Division, Biswanath Wildlife Division, Kaziranga Tiger Reserve, and District administration.

With high hopes, these 22 hatchling Black Softshells will not only survive, but thrive, grow to adulthood, and help repopulate their species. It’s the goal of the "Return to the Wild” program that this release is just the first of many annual waves of headstarted softshells to enter the Brahmaputra. For the Black Softshell, their wild survival depends on it.


Photo credits: Turtle Survival Alliance and Biswanath Wildlife Division, Kaziranga Tiger Reserve


The hatchling Black Softshell Turtles were released within the Western Range of the Biswanath Wildlife Division in the presence of Shri. Padma Hazarika (Member of Legislative Assembly, Government of Assam), Dr. Aakashdeep Kakati (CO, Nauduar Revenue Circle), Mr. Mukut Chandra Das (DFO, Biswanath Wildlife Division), Mr. Biswajit Das (ACF, Sonitpur East Division), Dr. Dipak Sarma (State Veterinary officer, Sootea), Mr. Rajib Baruah and Mr. Dharmananda Das (Nagshankar Temple committee members), and community citizens.

The project team thanks Shri. Dhurbajyoti Das (former Deputy commissioner, Biswanath), Mr. P. Sivakumar (Director, Kaziranga National park) and Mr. Suhas Kadam (DFO, Sonitpur East Division) for their immense support and assistance in making this program a successful one. We also thank the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for their support of this program.

*The Black Softshell Turtle is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as 'Extinct in the Wild' per a 2002 assessment. The IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group lists them as Critically Endangered per the more recent 2018 assessment.