The Flesh Eating Turtles of the Ganges: India’s Strange Experiment in Pollution Control and Human Decomposition

by Carolyn Sotka

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Boys swimming in the Ganges in Varanasi. Photo courtesy of Yve Assad.

The Ganges River in India is one of the most revered rivers in the world, but also one of the most polluted. Close to 90 millions tons of waste are dumped each year and there are over 150 industrial plants that release untreated effluent into the river. Yet the river still supports all aspects of daily life – from drinking water and food, to bathing and other rituals along the banks.

Life often begins and ends on the Ganges. Hindus believe that being cremated along the river banks allows the soul to escape the cycle of rebirth and achieve salvation and remains tare ypically released into the river. With over 500 million people depending on the waters of the Ganges, the sheer number of corpses exacerbates the already heavily contaminated waters.

To address this ‘necrotic pollution’, a 30-million dollar restoration project involved rearing and stocking the rivers with the Ganges soft-shelled turtle, Trionyx gangeticus. The turtles were raised to eat dead flesh in hopes to aid the decomposition of corpses. Some have reported that ten turtles could consume a human body in 2-days. 25,000 turtles were released over a ten-year period.

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The Ganges Soft Shell Turtle. Photo by gnozef /Flickr.

Unfortunately the plan backfired. The soft shell turtle became the target of poachers who quickly culled the population back to low numbers. According to Richard D. Connerney in his book ‘The Upside Down Tree’, “In lieu of effective policies that would prevent the dumping of half-burned bodies into rivers and streams, India had turned to this innocent turtle to solve its problems.”

Sadly, the additive effect of increased population density and increased run-off from a changing climate makes the public health outlook of the mighty Ganges is pretty dim. Ten years ago, the estimate of infection by waterborne diseases was 66% and the today the number is likely higher and growing.

Check out National Geographic‘s fascinating video and story on the ritual of cremation in Varanasi, India.

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Funeral pyres burn 24 hours, 7-days a week.  In Varanasi, India hundreds of bodies are burned each day in the public cremation ghat. Photo from National Geographic’s The Pyres of Varanasi: Breaking the Cycle of Death and Rebirth by Pete McBride.

-CS

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