For the first time since it was established 294 years ago, a temple in Guwahati has let its presiding deity play second fiddle to the offspring of its resident reptiles — the rare black softshell turtle (Nilssonia nigricans).The Ugratara Temple, one of the city’s landmarks, organised a special darshan of 34 hatchlings of the freshwater turtle on Sunday. Members of the temple committee and devotees turned up for what was essentially a ceremony to welcome and bid goodbye to these hatchlings.The welcome was because the eggs of black softshell were collected from temple ponds for incubation at the Assam State Zoo. And the goodbye was because these hatchlings will be reintroduced in the wild, never to return.“It was a sort of homecoming for the progeny of the turtles that have been part of our lives in Jorpukhuri,” said Kailash Sarma, member of the temple committee. Jorpukhuri translates into twin tanks, one of which abuts Ugratara Temple that is dedicated to Goddess Tara, a ‘fiery’ avatar of Kali.“The black softshell turtle is extinct in the wild. The few that remain are in the ponds of some temples in Assam. We started the conservation programme by involving the temples and collected the eggs in December last year. Of the 70 eggs, 34 hatched in the zoo about 10 days ago,” Jayaditya Purkayastha of conservation NGO Help Earth told The Hindu.“We were sad to let the hatchlings, the pride of our temple, go back to the zoo. But it is heartening to know they are going away for the greater cause of reintroducing the species into the wild,” said Parameswar Sarma, the chief priest. He agreed that the ponds are too crowded for the hatchlings to be brought back.Target 1,000A similar homecoming of 11 hatchlings of the equally endangered Indian roofed turtle (Pangshura tecta) and the Indian tent turtle (Pangshura tentoria) was organised at the Hayagriv Madhab Temple in Hajo, about 30 km west of Guwahati. Help Earth members had collected 150 eggs of these two turtle species a few months ago.“We have identified 18 temple ponds and we can hope to reintroduce 1,000 freshwater turtles into the wild every year if we can have a nodal network of at least 15 of these ponds. Incubating the eggs away from the ponds was necessary because of the low hatching rate in the ponds,” Mr. Purkayastha said. The eggs of the freshwater turtles have a soft shell. Unlike rivers or natural water bodies where they lay eggs a foot under silt, the clayey bottom of the ponds forces the turtles to lay eggs on the surface. Only about 20% of the eggs laid in these ponds hatch because of other factors such as shallowness and resultant water temperature.