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A few months ago there appeared on Auroville's Intranet and AVNews the following interesting reportage by Aurovilian Renu informing the community about the miraculous appearance in Auroville of the Starred Tortoise, a beautiful creature with an intricate network of bright, interlinked stars on its shell..


You find the article here below, followed by the answers to her questions..

Saved from being exported

The 'Starred Tortoise' (Geochelone elegans) is the one that has been gracing the Auroville landscape lately. Rumour has it that Pitchandikulam Joss released a quantity of these gentle animals that had been seized before they were slated for export as pets. Sadly they are now considered an endangered species. Once we receive the actual facts (see below) of how many and where exactly they were released, it will be interesting to mark their journey throughout Auroville.

Landlubbers

Meanwhile all Aurovilians can be an important part of this research by emailing us where you find a turtle, and its sex. (Not surprisingly, the males have a longer tail than the females). If you decide to keep one around for a while, make a large enclosure with granite pillars or a similar short wall and make a hiding place under a slab of stone. I have had good luck feeding them tomato, salad leaves, orange and papaya skins.
Please, resist the urge to see the tortoise swimming off in your pond: this fellow is a landlubber and will not be pleased by this sport.
We named our female Tara (star in Sanskrit). She was found at the Abri turn-off. We enjoyed watching her eat but for the most part she seemed shy. When we next found a male by Francis's, we thought the couple ought to be named Stella & Stanley. However, our male escaped quite quickly, we suspect he used his prospective wife as a ladder to freedom.

How they came here

Meanwhile, Joss and Anita of Pichandikulam who were out of station at the time, have responded to Renu:

Yes, we did release 200 tortoises in Pitchandikulam, just after the peak of the summer. They were brought to us by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department after they had been confiscated at the Chennai Airport as it is illegal to export them (they were on their way to Singapore to be sold as pets or for medicine..). If you ask in any pet shop in Pondicherry about food for tortoises, you will be told that it's illegal to keep them. The ones that were confiscated had been collected in Tamil Nadu from the wild, and it was necessary that they be released into a safe place.

Keep them free!

We are happy if they are finding their ways across Auroville, and hope that they will find safe homes in its forests and gardens. It would be great if someone can co-ordinate a record of where they are turning up. However, we want to stress that we did not let them all go to be caught again! People shouldn't catch them and keep them, please..

This is a test in a way, to see whether we can be an appropriate place for the release of other confiscated wild animals, but it comes with a responsibility and guarantee to the T.N. Forest Department that they really are free.

 

Facts according to: 'The Book of Indian Reptiles' by the Bombay Natural History Society:

 

Local names

- Hindi: Kachuva
- Marathi: Kasai
- Tamil: Amai
- Mayalayam: Amah
- Telegu: Tabelu

All land tortoises are grouped under a single family, the Testudinidae. The shell is heavy and covered with horny shields. The head and neck are completely retractile. The hind limbs are columnar and club shaped.
Tympanum distinct. Jaws with alveolar ridges. Tail short. Eggs hard-shelled, more or less spherical. Land tortoises are largely herbivorous in their food habits, and are now widely distributed in the warmer parts of the world. The larger species are now restricted in their distribution to oceanic islands. Fossils of a giant species, Colossochelys atlas, with a carapace length of about 2.5-m have been recovered from the fossil beds of the Siwalik Hills. A single genus occurs in India.

Habitat, distribution and status

Fairly common in sandy tracts such as the coastal scrublands of the amanathapuram District in Tamil Nadu and the semi arid and desert tracts of peninsular India. It is said to be very common in Chitoor district, A.P. and the adjacent Kolar district, Karnataka. Its status in wetter areas is not clear. Occurs in the peninsular area of India westward to Sind in Pakistan. Precise information is required on the status of the Starred Tortoise within this range. Not an uncommon species. (It is now considered an endangered species due to over poaching for the pet market.)
The season of most activity is the monsoon when tortoises may be seen wandering around even during the day.

Food

Omnivorous but inclined to be vegetarian. Feeds on succulent like cissus quadrangularis, fallen fruits, grass and similar vegetation. Captive specimens thrive on all types of soft vegetables. They are also known to feed on snails, and animal and bird excreta, and in captivity are reported to have fed on carrion.

Breeding

Mates during the rainy season when the animals are most active. The concave plastron of the male facilitates mounting. Instances are recorded of the males shoving and trying to overturn each other. The eggs, in clutches varying in number from 3 to 7, are laid in a pit dug by the female with her hind feet, the soil being moistened with her urine. When completed and tamped down, the egg hole becomes undistinguishable from the surrounding soil. Clutches have been laid in March, April, June, October and November. A female may lay more than one clutch in a season. The hard-shelled eggs are ellipsoidal, white, matt-surfaced, and range in size from 40 X 35 to 51 X 37 mm. Incubation may take from 47 days to 147 days for eggs of the same clutch.

It takes about twenty-four hours for the young to surface after hatching. The yolk sac is external at birth but is usually absorbed in forty-eight hours. The hatchling is provided with an egg tooth for breaking the shell. (An egg tooth is a temporary point on the upper mandible.) Within a week of birth the young start eating greedily and on the same food as the adult. Maturity is attained in about two years.

Three more species of land tortoise in India.
  • East Indian Tortoise, Geochelone Elongata replaces the Starred Tortoise in eastern India and south-east Asia

  • Travancore Tortoise, Geochelone Travancoria. Restricted to the Western Ghats of Kerala and Karnataka (Coorg), said to be common in the hills between 100-300 m.

  • Eastern Hill Tortoise. Geochelone Emys Hills of east India and south East Asia. )The Afghan Tortoise Testudo horsfieldi occurs in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan.)

 

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