Softshell Turtles and softshell Turtle products are in use for medical purpose in many countries across the Indian ocean. Stories about this animal were gathered and written by students. They are all part of a pedagogical project, funded by the National University of Singapore and the Université de Paris. The Bestiary site is a work-in-progress and a participatory educational tool, representing animals whose products or body parts are used to promote health and healing.

Softshell Turtle (Islamic Cultures / Bangladesh)

A  Story by Annu Jalais

(Black Soft-Shelled Turtle also known as the Bostami turtle) Bangladesh

 

In Bangladesh’s city of Chittagong’s Nasirabad area, there is a little hill on top of which there is a shrine dedicated to the memory of Hazrat Bayezid Bostami, a famous Sufi saint who is believed to have come to Bengal all the way from the city of Bastam in Iran. We know very little about this holy person. The shrine or the dargah complex consists of what is believed to be the “tomb” (a sarcophagus containing shells and corals and perhaps five drops of the saint’s blood) in a modern-day brick structure. The complex also shelters an old mosque, believed to have been built in the time of Emperor Aurangzeb, and a “magical” pond. The pond is full of turtles that are called “mazari” (i.e. “belonging to the mazar” of the sacred tomb i.e. of the saint), and people from all over Bangladesh come to see these turtles to be blessed by them. They do so by feeding them bits of banana, rice balls, bread or meat extended towards them on a twig, and then by gently stroking their head.

The black softshell turtle has a very distinct nose and face, with a tube-like structure protruding from its nose resembling a snorkel. They also have strange hand-like structures that are webbed. Like all other softshell turtles, they also have a semi-flexible shell that is leathery.

Folk tales claim that these turtles are the descendants of evil spirits or jinns that incurred the wrath of the renowned saint while he was visiting the area. It is believed that the saint transformed the jinns into turtles as a punishment and that they are doomed to spend eternity in this pool. These black soft-shelled turtles are known as Bostami turtles or Bostami kachim and are locally believed to exist only in this pond. However, they also exist in a couple of other ponds – one attached to the Sakta Kamakhya temple in Assam, the other to a Shiva temple in Baneswar in Cooch Behar in West Bengal – as well as in the wild (two tiny populations were discovered in the wild in Assam). They are thus very rare and critically endangered.

Some say that Bayezid Bostami may not have visited Bengal and that what is believed to be his “tomb” is actually a “jawab” (i.e. a “response” or an “imitation”) or an answer to fervent prayers that he visits. Others, however, believe that he visited Chittagong during his lifetime. The story goes that overwhelmed by the devotion of his followers who were requesting him to stay back, the saint pierced his little finger and allowed a few drops of blood to fall to the ground, thus consecrating the place and allowing his followers to build a shrine in his name. Chittagong is a sea-port and is referred to as the “city of the twelve saints” and travellers from all over the world used to visit the port from as early as the 8th century CE. Hence it is not impossible that the saint visited in the 9th century. In popular culture, there are many poems singing the praises of ‘Shah Sultan of Nasirabad’ and it is believed that the songs refer to Bayejid Bostami as his actual name was ‘Sultan-ul-Arefin’. Muslim faqirs, saints and wanderers used to come to Chittagong and clear forests and then take their seat on hill-tops in imitation of viharas (Khan, 1871).

 

Value in Asian Medicine or “Curative” propensity

 

It is believed that these turtles, irrespective of one’s religion, will bless a person and grant them their secret desires. For this one needs to feed them and caress their heads.

Blessings being sought from the soft-shelled turtles of the Hazrat Bayezid Bostami Sufi shrine in Chittagong, Bangladesh. 2008 © Annu Jalais
Soft-shelled turtles from the Hazrat Bayezid Bostami Sufi shrine in Chittagong, Bangladesh, being fed and caressed. 2008 © Annu Jalais
References
Hamidullah Khan. 1871. Ahadis-ul-Khawanin, Calcutta.
ME Haq. 1975. A History of Sufism in Bengal, Dhaka
Abdul Karim. 1985. Social History of the Muslims in Bengal, 2nd ed, Chittagong.
Banglapedia. Bayejid Bostami Tomb and Mosque. https://en.banglapedia.org/index.php?title=Bayejid_Bostami_Tomb_and_Mosque accessed September 20 2021
Banglapedia. Bayejid Bostami. https://en.banglapedia.org/index.php?title=Bayejid_Bostami accessed September 20 2021

Softshell turtle (China)

A Story by Avril Goh Shi Yun

The softshell turtle is widely consumed and used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). A common method of consuming the Chinese softshell turtle is as turtle soup, which contains the turtle’s meat, skin and innards. The shell of the turtle is widely used as a herb that is believed to treat Systemic Lupus Erythematosus – an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack its own tissues, which may affect organs such as skin, lungs, and brain. In order to keep up with the high market demand for the softshell turtle, China has turned to turtle farming. However, this did not stop the turtle population from declining. Instead, it increased the value of wild hunted softshell turtles compared to the farm ones, encouraging poachers to hunt them more for the market incentives.

Despite the popular belief that consuming turtle parts provides a plethora of health benefits, scientists have found that softshell turtles are zoonosis carriers. Some examples are Salmonellosis (one of the more common foodborne bacterial infections contracted by consuming food contaminated with animal faeces), and parasitic diseases such as trichinosis, gnathostomiasis, pentastomiasis and sparganosis, which are commonly transmitted when consuming parts of reptiles such as turtle, lizard, etc.

For most reported cases of infection, there have not been reported deaths from the diseases. However, low risk of death does not mean no risk, and there is a need for preventive measures to be in place. In 2008, there was an outbreak of human trichinosis associated with ingestion of raw soft-shelled turtle parts such as their raw egg, liver, blood, and meat. It caused people to display symptoms such as fever, myalgia, malaise, swelling, tremor etc.

The softshell turtle transmits diseases not only through human consumption, but also by handling the turtles. There have been numerous cases of outbreaks of salmonella from pet turtles. The droppings of these turtles contain Salmonella germs. If not handled carefully, the possibility of contracting the disease is high.

In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which is speculated to have spread from dead bats and snakes sold in a wet market in Wuhan, the use of animals in wildlife trades and farms are under questioning. The scientist communities are not able to confirm that these softshell turtles are not a carrier of any diseases that may have spread to them.

Xuanwu, God of the North. Artist: Formerly attributed to Bai Liangyu (late 12th-early 13th century). Ming dynasty, ca. 1500. Zhe School. China. Freer Gallery of Art
Amyda cartilaginea juvenile, © Wibowo Djatmiko, 2009, Wikimedia Commons
Five Luohan with Attendants Crossing the Ocean. Patron: Empress Dowager Cisheng (1546-1614). Freer Gallery of Art
References
Cheow, S.N. (2020, May 5). Parliament: Sale and slaughter of live animals in S’pore wet markets under review. The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/sale-and-slaughter-of-live-animals-in-wet-markets-here-under-review
Lo, Y. C., Hung, C. C., Lai, C. S., Wu, Z., Nagano, I., Maeda, T., Takahashi, Y., Chiu, C. H., & Shyong Jiang, D. D. (2009). Human trichinosis after consumption of soft-shelled turtles, taiwan. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 15(12), 2056-2058. https://doi.org/10.3201/eid1512.090619
FECYT – Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology. (2010, February 10). Biological risks of eating reptiles. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 28, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/02/100209182456.htm
Zhang, J., Kuang, D., Wang, F., Meng, J., Jin, H., Yang, X., Liao, M., Klena, J. D., Wu, S., Zhang, Y., & Xu, X. (2016). Turtles as a possible reservoir of nontyphoidal salmonella in shanghai, china. Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, 13(8), 428-433. https://doi.org/10.1089/fpd.2015.2107