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Turtles get village shield
- Wildlife conservation gets boost in sanctuary & rural temple

Bhubaneswar, Aug. 23: The 200-odd fresh water turtles in Champeswar are fortunate not to have met the fate of thousands of Olive Ridleys in Gahirmatha.

For centuries, they have found a temple tank in this village in Cuttack district to live where nobody harms them, rather protect them, unlike their oceanic counterparts who are killed by fishing trawlers every year.

Villagers of Champeswar, around 112km from here, take care of the turtles, who have of late drawn an interest from wildlife conservationists and the state government.

According to historians, the temple is about 1,000-year-old and the 150sqft tank — adjacent to it — seems to be as old. Local villagers worship the turtles as incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

The huge number of turtles is one of the major attractions for devotees visiting the temple and the state tourism department wants to reap benefit out of the tradition. The devotees feed bhog (temple offerings) to the turtles and consider it as an act of virtue. They also take care so that the 3-metre deep tank remains clean.

“No one knows how old the turtles are or how they came here But it is believed that if anyone harms them, their family will suffer from incurable diseases,” said Lokanath Panda, the temple priest.

The turtles are harmless and there has been no incident of any visitor ever being harmed by the reptile. People place food on the stairs leading to the tank and it’s exciting to see the turtles rushing for it. Some even respond to their names. “Two giant turtles emerge out of the water when called by their name Balia and Kalia,” claimed a village elder.

“While the stock of this species is declining everyday and the government has been coming up with several projects for its safety, this unique conservation measure by the villagers of Champeswar is encouraging,” senior environmentalist Bijay Mishra said.

Since the temple is a monument of archaeological importance, the department of tourism is also concerned about its conservation effort. “However, the role of key actors, the local community in this system, is yet to be acknowledged,” lamented Mishra.

The temple authorities believe that the tank is spacious enough to accommodate the turtles as of now. “Even is the population goes up, we might have to construct another pond. The entire village will contribute towards this effort,” said Panda.

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