The black softshell turtle is native to South Asia — and, as of 2002, is officially considered extinct in the wild. As it turns out, this distinction is probably untrue — in recent years, a few turned up in a river in Assam, India. But nevertheless, the turtle’s future is endangered.
Or would be, if they weren’t holy.
Well, some of them, at least. In Chittagong, Bangladesh — about 450 miles from Assam, India — there are about 150 to 300 of these turtles. They live at a shrine (pictured above) to Bayazid Bastami, an influential Islamic mystic from the 9th century. Legend has it that this group of turtles had forebearers who were once human — human sinners. As the story goes, a 13th century saint saved the souls of the sinners by turning them into turtles, and the attendants of the shrine (called the Mazur Committee) have taken it upon themselves to care for these now-blessed turtles and their descendants. But for the very recent discovery of black softshell turtles in India, the Mazur Committee has kept a species from going extinct.
And they intended to do so going forward — alone. While the Mazur Committee grants scientists access to the turtles and their habitat, that is the extent of scientific inquiry allowed. The turtles are not to be relocated outside of the shrine — efforts to reintroduce the turtles in the wild have been rebuffed by the Mazurs.
From the Archives: The Day There Was No News: Featuring news from Chittagong — but almost nowhere else.
Related: Solar powered turtles. Neat.