In search of the black softshell turtle

June 12, 2024

First published in the 18th issue of HerpBuzz on

Written by Daisy Das (leader of a 2021 CLP project).

Want to join me in search of wild “hidden treasure”? Then put on your life jacket! I am going to sail you across the mighty Brahmaputra River in Assam, India.

The wild “treasure” I was looking for is the rare and elusive black softshell turtle (Nilssonia nigricans) or ‘Bormuriya Kaso‘ as it is locally known. This species, classified as Critically Endangered globally, is so scarce that finding it in the wild is very challenging. Plus, there is no treasure map to guide my search, so I must survey the entire ~200 km stretch of the Brahmaputra-Subansiri River. Come along …

Brahmaputra bank at Kaziranga National Park, Photo by Uditya Borkataki

During my surveys, I was lucky to have my team mate, Mr. Uditya Borkataki. In particular, we wanted to know whether the turtles even lived in this river and if they did, what the key threats to their survival were. We explored these questions as part of a project funded by the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) aiming to conserve the last remaining populations of the black softshell turtle.


The black softshell turtle is endemic to India’s northeast and is densely populated in some temple ponds of Assam, West Bengal, and Tripura. Temples keep turtles due to their sacred status in Hindu mythology, with devotees catching turtles from the wild and donating them to temples in exchange for blessings.

Black Softshell Turtle at Nagsankar Temple in Assam, Photo by Manisha Kumari

Temple ponds are sacred refuges for this turtle but we must also question how good such ponds are for the species’ well-being. The unavailability of basking and nesting sites in the temple ponds will cause disease breakout and temperature fluctuation affecting the population’s gender ratio.

Poaching and illegal trading are causing a rapid decline in their wild population. Scientists have been informed of the presence of wild populations from Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, along with Assam, West Bengal, and Tripura, but no extensive surveys have been conducted in the Brahmaputra River and its tributaries. We believe that restoring the species in the wild can be achieved by conserving the captive-raised population and releasing them into these hotspots.

An unexpected sight

We started our voyage with a not-so-candid group photograph on November 19, 2021. Even on a winter day, the scorching sun beat down on us, and frequent cool breezes felt so soothing. We took a moment to soak in the beauty of winter in the Kaziranga landscape.

We were already sailing up from Biswanath Ghat to the Murukhuwa Camp in the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve, while I clumsily balanced on the machine boat. The Murukhuwa Camp is one of the largest forest camps inside the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve where forest staff frequently encounter rhinos and tigers.

Questionnaire survey with the fishermen, Photo by Krishna Das

I sat at the top of the machine boat and cautiously adjusted my binoculars. The cold gazes of the mannequin-like black-necked and greater adjutant storks kept me hooked on to my binoculars. We saw that the Brahmaputra was meandering, forming mid-river islands, oxbow lakes, and floodplain wetlands.

A flock of water birds flew past our boat against the sun-painted sky during the golden hour. It was almost dark and the distant vegetation lines started fading.

Witnessing the golden hour in the mighty Brahmaputra, Photo by Daisy Das

Unexpectedly, we saw a royal Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) swimming towards the Naste Camp of the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve. We were too awed to take any photos. That rare moment was just for our eyes and minds to treasure. I still relive that moment with a twinkle in my eye.

We anchored our boat on an adjacent river island in the evening and camped on our boat that night. The Kaziranga Tiger Reserve is known for its majestic Indian elephants, Bengal tigers, greater one-horned rhinoceroses, and the wild water buffaloes making it one of the most thrilling places for us to visit.

Finding our hidden treasure

Spotting a turtle in the wild is like shooting in the dark. They are elusive and hypersensitive to humans. The only way around is to find a basking turtle — they are cold-blooded and require external heat to maintain their body temperature like other reptiles. Sunlight helps absorb Vitamin D3 that helps maintain calcium levels essential for shell development.

We hunted for the black softshell turtle in the riverine islands, locally known as “sapori“. The hour-long walks on those islands were a Herculean task (but so worth it).

A sapori (riverine island), Photo by Jyotsna Nag

We traced distinct turtle footprints and discovered intact nests buried deep in the sand. Clues like basking spots and claw marks indicated that the turtles were not far off.

Turtle footprints in one of the riverine islands of Kaziranga National Park, Photo by Daisy Das

Turtles galore!

The pristine Kaziranga Tiger Reserve is packed with turtle diversity and other wildlife. As we sailed towards calmer waters, we saw hundreds of hardshell turtles basking in the fallen trees and a few softshell turtles on the sandy shorelines. We also encountered the endangered Assam roofed turtle, listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act 1972 for its high demand in the international pet markets.

Soon, we spotted the hero of our story — the black softshell turtle — surfacing in the water near Agoratoli range. We were on cloud nine! We were awestruck by the view of turtles surfacing and basking in the open waters and submerged vegetation.

A black softshell turtle surfacing, Photo by Anuja Mital

Voice of the Mishings

We were keen on gathering traditional knowledge from the local community: the Mishing tribe. The Mishings speak the Tani language, and in their language, the word “Mishing” implies “the river man”. They are skilled fishermen, and the Brahmaputra is an alternate source of livelihood for them. The majority of the fishermen living along the northern banks of the Brahmaputra are Mishings.

We saw a group of Mishing fishermen removing entangled fishes from the nets to take back home. One of the fishermen, named Gogon, recalled the Brahmaputra River to have been a  turtle hotspot region, sheltering 19 species of freshwater turtles, in the past.

Questionnaire survey with the Mishing fishermen, Photo by Krishna Das

Gogon added that turtle hunting and consumption was practised for decades in the community, leading to the decline of many turtle populations. The other, named Bikram, narrated that the Pangin sub-tribe, of the Mishing, practises a ritual of offering turtles to their ancestors in the funeral ceremonies. Fortunately, these practices are no longer prevalent in the community because they can now access alternative sources of protein.

Witnessing a black softshell turtle in the Brahmaputra was magical. Our sole motive is to awaken the world of the crisis faced by the black softshell turtles, and we will continue to conserve these beautiful reptiles.

Indian softshell turtle (Nilssonia gangetica), Photo by Uditya Borkataki

About the Author

Daisy Das is a Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) alumna and a wildlife researcher. She completed her masters in wildlife science from Amity Institute of Forestry and Wildlife, Amity University Noida. She was leading the project on the conservation of the Critically Endangered Black Softshell Turtle in Assam, India, funded by CLP in 2021.

CLP project leader, Daisy Das, in Kaziranga National Park, holding an Indian softshell turtle. Photo by Uditya Borkataki
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