A number of softshell turtles were found lying abandoned on and around a border road between Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
While the police managed to rescue 26 of them, 14 were found dead and others were taken away by locals after news of their presence spread to nearby villages.
The vulnerable tortoises were abandoned by smugglers after being tipped off to the presence of an approaching patrol, said police.
Softshell turtles, which get their names due to lack of scales on their outer shell, are the most sought after species in the international market, mainly for their medicinal properties, and they are also often kept as pets.
"The matter came to our notice about the presence of tortoises beside the road villagers taking them away on Sunday. We suspect that they were being smuggled from Andhra, and the forest officials have rescued the remaining tortoises," police officer Sunil Dutt was quoted as saying by The News Minute.
"Soon after receiving information about the tortoises beside the road, we rushed to the spot. While we managed to rescue at least 26 of them, 14 were found dead. Since we do not find such tortoises in this region, we suspect they were being smuggled in vehicles that are usually used to transport fish from Andhra, " said T. Srinivas Rao, a forest ranger.
An inquiry is still underway to find the smugglers and ascertain how many tortoises were taken by villagers.
The rescued tortoises have been released into a nearby river.
In a similar incident, earlier in February, around 1,600 softshell tortoises were rescued from smugglers in Andhra. The reptiles were being smuggled to West Bengal and Odisha.