A terrapin with a Hollywood tale

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  05. 08. 2021


It is not just one of the rarest and most beautiful terrapins in the world. On top of that, it's a terrapin with a story that has the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster: a shocking revelation, a desperate search, a spy hiding her true identity, intricate talks with superstitious villagers, tragedy, and a hint of a happy ending. Introducing the northern river terrapin. I’m only going to give a brief description here; it’s full story would require an entire book.

Prague Zoo is the only facility outside of Asia that is open to the public and where it is possible to see the northern river terrapin in the flesh. Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo Prague Zoo is the only facility outside of Asia that is open to the public and where it is possible to see the northern river terrapin in the flesh. Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo

When Austrian herpetologist Peter Praschag and his colleagues published a new classification of the water turtles of South Asia in 2007 and 2008, it caused quite a stir. Using DNA analyses, he was able to prove that, as concerns this terrapin, what had been previously assumed was upended, and that the existing northern river terrapin was in fact two species: the southern river terrapin and the norther river terrapin. This wouldn’t have been particularly earth-shattering, were it not for the fact that the northern species had become almost, if not completely, extinct in the wild. In no time at all a huge effort was made to try and find it in eastern India, Bangladesh as well as in Myanmar, unfortunately to no avail. The conclusion was that if these large, up to sixty-centimetre-long terrapins, whose males change colour into an incredible combination of a black head and crimson body in the breeding season, still survive in the wild somewhere, it would be as single individuals or maybe a few dozen at the very most.

Despite this, there was a ray of hope. In 2008, herpetologist Shailendra Singh was going through the yellowed documentation of a project carried out in India in the 1980s to protect the olive ridley sea turtle. Here he found a note that hatchlings of a different water turtle had also hatched from turtle eggs collected at the time. Back then it wasn’t possible to determine what species they were, so they were released into a protected pond in the hope that when they grew up, it would be easier to identify them. But the project ended, and the mysterious turtles were forgotten. It wasn't until 2008 that Shailendra Singh found them using the old records. They were, indeed, the northern river terrapin.

Males change colour into an incredible combination of a black head and crimson body in the breeding season. Photo: Peter PraschagMales change colour into an incredible combination of a black head and crimson body in the breeding season. Photo: Peter Praschag

The aforementioned Peter Praschag was involved in organising another search, this time on the other side of the border, in Bangladesh. The reasoning behind his efforts was the idea that some norther river terrapins might be found in village ponds. The locals were not only very fond of eating the terrapin’s eggs and meat, but every now and then they kept one alive in the belief that it would bring them good luck. Peter Praschag primarily worked with Rupali Ghosh, an Indian woman who had already proven her mettle in similar operations. For instance, when she was working in Bangladesh, she blocked her social networks to make it more difficult to get information about her, allowing her to use cover stories. After a long time and extraordinary effort on her part she succeeded in finding and saving the first three northern river terrapins in 2009. Slowly, more specimens followed, not just from the village ponds but also from fishermen.

All the terrapins they found (except for three kept in the pond of one Myanmar pagoda) were placed in breeding centres in India and Bangladesh. Besides this, Peter Praschag also managed to import several into Austria. So, gradually, the “second rarest turtle in the world” was able to breed in all three countries. Understandably, these successes led to optimism, which resulted in a plan to release the northern river terrapin back into the wild. However, the reintroduction effort was a complete failure. All the transmitter-tagged animals were either killed or died in fishing nets or from other causes. The only recourse was to go back a step and do it all again.

The new step forward was to intensify the breeding of the northern river terrapin in captivity. Thanks to the young specimens provided by Peter Praschag, Prague Zoo is now also involved. Today, it has also become the only facility outside of Asia that is open to the public and where it is possible to see the northern river terrapin in the flesh.