Living fossils

People should be made aware and laws enforced to stop illegal trade of freshwater turtles

Living fossils

We visited Sukkur recently to highlight illegal turtle trade and see 200 freshwater turtles, which had been repatriated from Chinese custom authorities and handed over to the Sindh Wildlife Department and WWF-Pakistan’s officials in August 2014.

We were surprised to learn the unique history of turtles as they have survived on earth for almost 350 million years, hence also known as living fossils. Turtles are highly adaptive and can easily adjust to changing environments. Even dinosaurs couldn’t survive changes on the planet but turtles did, which can be seen by their high survival rate.

Turtles have a special place in the ecosystem, as they maintain ecosystem health by feeding on dead organic matter and consuming diseased fish, thus also termed natural recyclers. This is, in fact, good for humans as they help in maintaining a healthy population of fish and help sustain the multi-billion dollar fisheries industry across the world.

In Pakistan, there are two species of land tortoises, five species of marine turtles and eight species of freshwater turtles, and, unfortunately, all of them face multiple threats in Pakistan. They are hunted for their meat and to be used in traditional medicines. However, they are not consumed in Pakistan but are illegally exported in the form of dried turtle parts to East Asian countries, such as China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.

Freshwater turtle species are subjected to illegal wildlife trade and due to anthropogenic activities five out of eight species of freshwater turtles are either endangered or vulnerable as classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Freshwater turtles have a wide distribution range as they are found in Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). They are found along the entire Indus River system and its tributaries, canals, streams, ponds and even rice fields.

Keeping in view threats to freshwater turtles, WWF-Pakistan lobbied with the governments of Punjab and KPK to enlist the species as protected, therefore, it was declared a protected species in 2007 under Punjab and KPK Wildlife Protection Acts.

Turtle conservation is important and not limited to protection of the ecosystem, but for the species’ own survival as it takes 5-20 years for a turtle to reach maturity.

Since turtle export is completely banned by the government, many consignments carrying dried turtle parts have been confiscated in recent years. In 2005, a huge consignment of frozen turtle body parts weighing 3,650k bound for Vietnam was confiscated in Karachi. Also, many consignments of turtle parts bound for China were confiscated at airports and the Pak-China border.

Turtle conservation is important and not limited to protection of the ecosystem, but for the species’ own survival as it takes 5-20 years for a turtle to reach maturity. Unfortunately, before that many of them fall prey to predators, pollution, and changing weather patterns.

Breeding of the species through turtle farming may be an option. However, this can provide poachers an incentive to continue exporting and smuggling turtles under the cloak of exporting farmed turtles. Experts regard this as an unwise option.

Other threats have also endangered its population, including habitat degradation; unsustainable fishing practices; untreated industrial and agricultural effluents discharged into rivers; scarcity of freshwater in Indus downstream; destruction of wetlands and catching fish by adding poison or electrocution.

However, threats to freshwater turtles have been further reduced. Communities are mobilised to protect them and report turtle trade to wildlife authorities, if anyone is found involved.

Representatives of community bases organisations (CBOs) say that due to interventions of some orginaisations, turtle trade between a 200km stretch of Guddu and Sukkur barrages has decreased, indicating a positive development in turtle conservation.

Muhammad Ali Merani, General Secretary, Gothani Maholyati Tanzeem CBO said, "Turtle trade was common six years back but due to sensitisation by WWF-Pakistan, we are now mobilised and report turtle smuggling to wildlife authorities if anyone is found involved."

A great feat in conservation was accomplised when WWF-Pakistan and Sindh Wildlife Department successfully retrieved 200 black spotted turtles illegally smuggled to China. These turtles were smuggled to western countries, i.e. USA and the UK, through China, for pet trade where people are willing to pay prices up to US$1,500-2,000.

According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), it is illegal to trade endangered species, thus, any live animal recovered is returned to its country of origin.

Since Pakistan became signatory to CITES in 1976, freshwater turtles were returned home. Repatriated turtles were kept in a plant nursery at the Indus Dolphin Conservation Centre, Lab-e-Mehran, Sukkur, where they were rehabilitated.

Due to sensitisation efforts, the Sindh government finally declared freshwater turtle species as "protected" under the Sindh Wildlife Act on September 19, 2014.

The 200 black spotted turtles were later released into their natural habitat on September 22, 2014, by the Sindh Wildlife Department and WWF-Pakistan’s officials.

Javed Mehar, Chief Conservator, Sindh Wildlife Department, expressed his utmost pleasure over the release of turtles and said, "The journey we started on August 15, 2014, to retrieve the turtles from China has successfully now come to an end.

Enlisting the turtle as a protected species under the Sindh Wildlife Act bore fruit, as on September 20, 2014, a consignment of live 217 black spotted turtles was confiscated from Karachi airport.

The consignment belonged to a resident of Gujranwala, who was carrying it to Bangkok. According to the Sindh Wildlife Department, these turtles were valued at Rs.15 million on the black market, revealing a lucrative business and organized crime links behind illegal wildlife trade.

Activism of the wildlife department shows a positive trend in biodiversity conservation, thus giving a strong message to poachers to refrain from harming wildlife or else face imprisonment. If turtles become extinct, who will purify the ecosystem, as these ‘Ninja Turtles’ fight against hazardous waste in our waters?

It’s high time the government and environmentalists sit together to stop wildlife trade and a mass-scale awareness campaign is envisaged.

Wildlife smuggling is a heinous crime and strict laws should be reinforced the way they have been in China (life-time imprisonment for wildlife smuggling). Tough prosecution will help in overcoming this issue.

Living fossils