The Bostami tortoise had been declared extinct by nature by the scientific community seventeen years ago. However, some have been secretly preserved by a Hindu temple in India where they are well tended and fed by the local guardians.
Due to the loss of habitat and overexploitation as a food source, the species had disappeared from the state of Assam in northeastern India, prompting the International Union for Nature Conservation to declare the "extinct nature" turtle in 2002.
What no one knows is that the guardians of the temple of Hayagriva Madhav hid some specimens and started to take care of the reptiles in the ponds around the sacred site. They say they felt the need to take responsibility for the protection of turtles because they believe they are the reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.
"The turtle population in general in the state of Assam has declined dramatically in recent years," veterinarian Jayaditya Purkayastha told AFP. "It requires an intervention or many species will be extinct soon, in the short term."
Conservationists and animal rights activists have dedicated themselves to setting up turtle breeding sites in "sanctuary" species where they can live safely and reproduce.
Recently, temple keepers have partnered with conservation group Good Earth to officially launch a turtle breeding program as a means of reintroducing them into nature. Their efforts finally came to fruition in January, when the organization successfully launched 35 turtle cubs – 16 were raised in the temple – in the waters of a local wildlife sanctuary.
"This is a milestone in the history of conservation of Assam turtles and would not have been possible without the interest shown by the temple authorities in the artificial breeding program," said veterinarian Jayaditya Purkayastha.
The coalition of guardians and activists now works to expand the Bostami turtle breeding program to another 18 ponds around the temple, expanding its natural habitat.