I came across the story of the most endangered turtle in the world while researching the question of whether “worm stomping” in Wood Turtles is a cultural behavior. (Alas, no.) In Ronald Orenstein's Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins: Survivors in Armor (2001), I read of Aspideretes nigricans (formerly Trionyx nigricans), the Black Softshell turtle, or Bastami (or Bostami) Softshell, which “survives for religious reasons. The entire population of some 400 animals is held in
semi-captivity in an enclosed pond, or tank, about five miles from Chittagong, Bangladesh, where visitors and pilgrims feed them bread, bananas, and offal. The tank is attached to an Islamic shrine...” Other sources confirmed that it was “critically endangered,” “extinct in the wild,” and “the 'holy' turtle of Bangladesh.”
The shrine is of a ninth century Sufi mystic, Bayazid Bastami, of whom I had not previously heard. It is said, apparently, that Bastami encountered evil spirits, and turned them into turtles. What a nice man. He didn't bind them in eternal chains, cast them into flame, or even drive them out. He just turned them into turtles. From evil he brought good. Or if not from evil, good, at least from evil, turtles.
The former evil spirits are protected. Orenstein quotes an early report that “the turtles are so tame that they come to feed when called, placing their forefeet on the edge of the platform or even climbing upon it and stretching their necks out of the water. Some even allowed us to touch them, and ate pieces of chicken from wooden skewers held in our hands.”
The species was taxonomically described by J. Anderson in 1875. The general assumption was that the rest of the species had gone extinct in the wild and only these few captives hung on (like the Pere David's deer, a herd of which survived on the estate of the Emperor of China, while all the rest were exterminated). A few herpetologists suggested that the Bastami turtles were just a bunch of inbred descendants of A. hurum, the Peacock Softshell, or A. gangeticus, the Ganges Softshell. How insulting.
But now Peter Praschag and colleagues have done the mitochondrial DNA work and even some field work, and have
However, the DNA work indicates that they are the same species as some turtles in a pond next to the Kamakhya Tantra Temple in Assam. (Note to self: if build temple: install turtles. Query: charge pilgrims for turtle chow?) They are even the same species as a turtle that was caught swimming wild in the Jia Bhoroli River, also in Assam. Praschag et al. don't know how many Bastami Softshells are out there, but they figure it's a lot more than just the ones that hang around the shrine.
What a revelation! As a fan of plot and anecdote I would much prefer that the temple have the only Bastami Softshells in the world, saved from extinction by the pious – but as a crazed fan of fauna I am very glad there are more Bastami Softshells in the world – saved from extinction by their own efforts.