Nagarkurnool: One of the endangered species that has been native of Nallamala forests spread across Telangana, Andhra and Rayalaseema regions is ‘Geochelone elegans,’ also known as ‘Indian Star Tortoise’ or ‘Nakshatra Tabelu.’
This tortoise species has for ages been revered as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu by Hindus, as according to Hindu mythology, Lord Vishnu had reincarnated as ‘Kurmavatar’ (tortoise incarnation), one of his ‘dashavatars’. Many people across India and also in countries like China, Japan, Singapore and Thailand also have these animals as pets since they are considered to bring good luck to them. This small reptile has a scaly, almost spiny body, protected by a distinctively patterned hard-curved shell like a bumpy star-studded helmet.
Star tortoise is also found in the North Western part of India in Sourashtra and Kutch regions of Gujarat and also in the scrub forests in Karnataka and Tamilnadu. This species features on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and has also been protected under the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Flora and Fauna. It has also been listed in Schedule IV of the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 for over 40 years, making it illegal to trade or own this species.
In the Nallamala forests, which forms one of the catchment area for Krishna, these star turtles are found in abundance. During summer, these amphibians, have been facing difficulties to find waterholes in the forests. Thanks to Forest Department which had arranged small ponds at several locations deep inside the Amrabad Tiger Reserve and have been filling water in those pits to ensure wild animals don’t dehydrate. However, more to be done to ensure endangered species like Geochelone elegans don’t suffer during the summer times.
Leeladhar, is one of the Chenchus who had rescued 6 star turtles that had strayed on to tar roads inside Nallamala in search of water a few months ago. Now, the Indian star tortoises including a female one have become friends with the family which is also planning to create an environment where the turtles could nest (October to January in South-eastern India). The mention of Chenchus protecting this endangered mammal in their own ways is important because the ‘Nakshatra Tabelu’ is high in protein and in good demand in international markets of Asia, Europe and the US. While the local primary collectors of star turtles earn around Rs 50-300 per turtle while the middlemen make anywhere between Rs 1,000 and 3,000 depending on the animal and the market where it sells. However, internationally, the demand is much higher.
The closest market having an international network of illegal trade of star tortoise is Andhra Pradesh and in July 2019, around 500 reptiles were rescued by the officials of Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) from a passenger at Vijayawada railway station. Similarly, in August 2018, around 1,125 star turtles were rescued by the DRI sleuths while being illegally transported from Vijayawada to Howrah in Yashwanthpur express.
There have been many instances where they were rescued in Thailand, but due to legal loopholes and due to a lack of mechanism to repatriate themselves into their habitats, this endangered species continues to be threatened with extinction if steps are not taken to protect them inside their natural habitat.
Many living in the core forest area of Amrabad Tiger Reserve feel that forest department must take steps to dig small pools in places where water flows naturally from the ghats in small streams before forming part of the Krishna River. Check-dams could be built on local streams like Gundam Cheruvu in Appapur penta and many such hamlets where watershed management efforts could be taken up on a large scale so that natural regeneration of forests and protection of wildlife like that of ‘Geochelone elegans’ could be done effectively by the forest department.