FATEHABAD: About 200 kilometres from Gurugram is the village of Kajalheri, which seems to be like any other in Haryana. Walk on the dusty road off the highway, and chances are that you will come across a few men sitting next to a pond. It may look like they are whiling away their time or simply soaking in the lush green beauty of the place, but they are actually on duty to guard the pond and its inhabitants — about 400 softshell turtles.
PARVEEN KUMAR/ HTn Kajalheri is the home to Nilssonia gangetica turtles, which belong to the family of Trionychidae and are unique to South Asia. They are listed as vulnerable.Kajalheri is the home to Nilssonia gangetica turtles, which belong to the family of Trionychidae and are unique to South Asia. They are listed as vulnerable in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (ICUN) Red List. These species have been accorded the highest level of security by the virtue of being placed in the Schedule 1 of Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972.
These turtles are known to have lived there for more than 100 years without any threat. They continue to flourish, thanks to the efforts of the locals who want to protect them as if their existence is a collective secret. The panchayat in Kajalheri does not allow fishing in the pond. The men of the village, who belong to the local Bishnoi community, take turns day and night to stand guard at the five-acre pool protect the turtles from being stolen or harmed. They also gather chapatis from the village to feed the turtles. They rarely allow outsiders near the pond and often berate them for taking pictures.
No wonder it took four hours and a dozen of villagers to say yes when HT sought permission to click pictures of the turtles.
“We do not want to make our village famous,” said the 64-yearold Gopi Kumar, who has been feeding the turtles since he was a little boy. He said that the villagers fear that fame would not only attract tourists to the village and also miscreants who might try to steal the turtles for smuggling.
Kumar said he visits the pond every day around 11 am, with more than 100 chapatis collected from the villagers, to feed the turtles, which are estimated to weigh anywhere between five and 110 kilograms. “I have been doing this for the last 55 years and this is my daily task. I have never travelled outside my village; as such, I have never missed feeding them,” said Kumar, who is a farmer by profession.
The pond is located at an elevation of about 20 meters from the ground on a mud hillock, in the northeast reaches of Kajalheri. Close to the pond, there is an old temple with two old banyan trees. On the eastern side of the pond, there is Kisangarh village and the Sidhmukh canal.
The priest of the temple said that two years back, one night a group of unidentified men came to steal the turtles. When he raised an alarm, they ran away but not without attacking him. “The turtles are considered auspicious. Villagers worship them; children visit the pond to feed them before exams and the people who have applied for jobs visit the pond, before filling forms or going for an interview,” said the priest.
Villagers know how to call the turtles: they rush out together when they hear a clapping sound. When Kumar did this, hundreds of turtles ran towards the shore to feed on the chapattis brought by Kumar. The villagers do not turn on the high mast lights around the pond, after wildlife officials told them that artificial lights can disorient the turtles.
The villagers patrol the pond at night, while the school students, during their holidays, divide their patrolling time at night to safeguard the turtles. When a turtle lay eggs on the shore, the villagers watch out for stray buffaloes swaggering past the eggs or monkeys closing in.