Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises of India is a collective working to spotlight these lesser studied species. There are 29 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises currently reported in India.In addition to education and awareness-based conservation, the two women researchers, who co-founded the group, are also engaged in field-based conservation, researching two lesser known turtles in India – Leith’s softshell and black softshell turtle.While there are challenges galore as women on the field, the researchers have used their gender to their benefit by building trust, including diverse voices in their surveys, observing knowledge gaps between men and women and paving the way to create safe spaces for future women field researchers.With more than 50 percent of freshwater turtles threatened with extinction, the collective hopes that their work will bring more attention to the species which often lose out to sea turtles and well-known mammals. For believers of Vastu Shastra and Feng Shui, the kachua (turtles or tortoises) attracts good fortune. Decorative items, rings and pendants depicting these creatures are common talismans and some homes even keep them live as pets, for good luck. Sneha Dharwadkar however, is sceptical. “This is wrong. Over 50 percent of freshwater turtle species are threatened. If they were indeed lucky, they wouldn’t be in this state!” says the herpetologist and conservation educator from Gujarat with experience in conservation, rescue and rehabilitation of freshwater turtles and tortoises. Common myths like these as well as lack of sufficient academic research and data on freshwater turtles and tortoises of India, spurred Dharwadkar and another turtle researcher, Anuja Mital, to take action and bring their favourite creatures into the spotlight. The two women founded the Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises of India (FTTI), a collective working to bring these species out of their metaphorical shells. “FTTI started out last year as an education and awareness project which has slowly gone onto becoming both, a field-based and education-based conservation project,” said Dharwadkar who noticed a severe lack of awareness around freshwater turtles and tortoises, even among her herpetologist counterparts. “Both Anuja and me are turtle biologists and people used to often send us requests to identify turtles. We realised that even herpetologists who have been in the field of herpetofauna, studying reptiles and amphibians, were not aware of many freshwater turtle and tortoise species. Many found it difficult to identify even common turtles,” she told Mongabay-India. Mital, a wildlife biologist and an independent turtle researcher from Mumbai, agreed, adding that she knows herpetologists working for decades who can’t identify turtles while she, after six years in the field, still gets referred to as “only a turtle biologist” despite her knowledge of a variety of herps. “I can tell you up to the genus level of any common herp!” she said. Red crowned roofed turtle. There are 29 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises currently reported in India. Photo by Sneha Dharwadkar. Dharwadkar and Mital started their work around awareness in 2016 on the citizen conservation initiative, India Biodiversity Portal (IBP), where they managed a species page documenting freshwater turtles and tortoises of India. As they kept getting more requests for identification, they realised the severe lack of available information and knew they had to do something more about it. In 2019, they extended their awareness work using social media and the response was overwhelming. “We had around 70 observations when we started, social media helped us cross 150 observations and after we did a social media campaign during Turtle Week in May last year, we crossed 250 observations within a few weeks of the campaign. We are now over 300 records and hope to increase that considerably after our upcoming Turtle Week initiative in May 2020,” Mital told Mongabay-India. Their aim is to get more researchers and photographers who have photo records of turtles to contribute to this citizen-led project. One of the benefits of the increasing number of observation reports on IBP and via social media was that they revealed new locations in India that were not previously known for populations of freshwater turtle and tortoise species. “For the first time, we were getting observations of rare turtles like the Leith’s softshell turtle in locations that are new to us. We also got reports of the black softshell turtle – a rare turtle that is listed as ‘extinct in the wild’,” said Dharwadkar. Among the unique observations the team received through their initiative, was one from Nashik, where rare Leith’s turtles were found within the city. “Before our initiative, we did not know that there was a population of the rare Leith’s softshell turtle right inside the city,” said Dharwadkar, who is working with a local organisation in Nashik, Eco-Echo, towards conservation of the Leith’s turtle from trafficking, consumption and other threats. Why do we need to protect freshwater turtles? India has a total of 29 species of freshwater turtles (24) and tortoises (5). The latest addition to the list was as recent as last year where a new record of the Impressed Tortoise (Manouria impressa), only known in China and Myanmar until then, was found in Arunachal Pradesh. Many of these 29 species are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act with up to 11 species having Schedule 1 protection, same as that of a tiger. Freshwater turtles are known for their ecosystem services like keeping rivers, ponds and freshwater sources clean by eating algal blooms and scavenging on dead matter. “Freshwater turtles play an important role in being predators as well as the prey. They control invasive fishes by eating them, and at the same time, they are an important source of protein for a lot of animals that feed on turtle eggs and juvenile turtles,” explains Dharwadkar. “They are scavengers, also sometimes known as “vultures of the aquatic ecosystem” keeping the ecosystem clean and an important part of the aquatic food chain. A healthy pond ecosystem usually has a flapshell or some kind of freshwater turtle,” she said. These charismatic creatures, however, are threatened by illegal trade, with hotspots in the north and northeast region of India. Right from international trafficking to people purchasing the species to keep as pets, illegally, it is the lack of information among consumers as well as officials that is driving the fate of these creatures. Additionally, age-old traditional practices of consuming the turtles and myths about turtle oil curing diseases are hard to combat. “Turtle poaching is rampant across India and a lot of educated youth still like to have turtles as pets. When we put up pictures, our inbox is full of messages asking ‘where can I buy this?’, ‘do you breed them?’ etc. So we constantly share information that turtles are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, it is illegal to keep them as pets…hopefully in a few years time the message will spread,” said Mital.