KARACHI: The illegal trade of endangered turtles might be a lucrative industry but it is upsetting the natural order of Pakistan's wildlife environment.
These turtles are a natural filter and key components of eradicating water pollution as well as various bacteria which is harmful for human health. But, due to the illegal trafficking, they are disappearing from Pakistan fast.
The turtles are being illegally exported to China, Taiwan, Vietnam and other Asian countries, as they are eaten or used for medicinal purposes and in the preparation of artificial jewellery.
A turtle bought for a mere Rs200 is being sold after being smuggled to the aforementioned countries for a whopping Rs150,000, which amounts to $1,500. The wildlife department's poor performance can be gauged by the low number of cases registered in the last 10 years against the smugglers, which stands at 69.
These turtles can be found in wetlands, such as lakes, rivers and ponds, and are crucial in maintaining a balance in the ecosystem as they prey on plants that grow underwater, small insects, snails, worms, and dead marine animals and fish, clearing water bodies of germs and harmful bacteria.
The Chinese are reportedly associated with the turtle trafficking business in Pakistan. Influential Chinese at the helm of some Pakistan-China projects are alleged to be directly involved in the bootlegging of turtles.
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On August 18, 2014, a consignment of 229 black-spotted turtles was seized at the Pakistan-China border. A month later, on September 20, 2014, a shipment of 218 black-spotted turtles was seized at the Karachi airport. On the same day, 230 Pakistani black pond turtles were caught at a hospital in Karachi.
A couple of years later, on April 7, 2016, 62 turtles, tightly wrapped in a curtain, were seized in Shanti Nagar by the Karachi police. Of these turtles, 49 died. On April 28, 2016, 170 black-spotted turtles were seized from the Super Highway. On September 10, 2016, a shipment of 780 black-spotted turtles was recovered from Defence Housing Authority in Karachi.
In 2003, the Sindh wildlife department, in coordination with the zoological survey department of Pakistan, conducted a survey to collect data on turtles in the Indus River. The survey concentrated on the waters linking Sukkur Barrage, Guddu Barrage and Jamal Din, as well as the waters around Kandhkot. Another survey was conducted just two years later, in 2005, and two species, Pangshura Smithii and Chitra Indica, which were included in the previous survey results, were missing from the results of the second survey.
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In 2009, reports showed the Indus River was home to eight species of turtles. However, by 2012, there were just three types of species left, which included two hard-shelled spotted pond and Indian roofed turtles and one soft shelled peacock turtle.
Data collected in 2014 found that the soft shelled Indian flap shell turtles were the highest in number among other species of turtles, but sadly, a 2015 survey reported that this species had gone missing. In 2016, some surveys argued that all sweet water turtles' existence was endangered.
From 2006 to 2008, the wildlife department registered 22 cases of illegal smuggling of turtles from various cities such as Sukkur, Rohri, Ghotki, Pannu Aqil, Abro, Guddu, Kashmore and Kandhkot. Between 2009 and 2014, 37 smugglers were arrested in Sukkur, Khairpur, Dokri, Kashmore, Kamber-Shahdadkot, Guddu and Larkana for the illegal trade of turtles. Likewise, from 2014 to 2017, nine cases were registered in connection with the illegal smuggling of black spotted turtles.
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Before 2007, sweet water turtles in Pakistan were not included in the endangered species list, but now, they are considered an endangered species in all provinces of the country. In 2014, the Sindh government added eight species of turtles in 'Sindh's Most Endangered Wildlife Species' list. The turtles located in the waters on either side of the Indus River (till the Kotri Barrage) are the prime targets and prey of the smuggling mafia.
Initially, the process of fishing out these turtles was done by amateurs, but it is now being done by expert fishermen and locals who specialise in this type of fishing. Turtles weighing between two grammes and two kilogrammes are caught and sold to a middleman for Rs200 to Rs500.
The clearing and forwarding expenses at the airport have seen a significant rise in their price and these turtles can cost up to Rs4,000.
Therefore, each shipment's cost may vary between Rs1.2 million and Rs1.5 million and includes 200 to 250 units. The demand for these turtles in the international market is great, with each unit costing around $1,500. Hence, a smuggler gets a hefty return on his 'investment' per shipment. Barely one in five smugglers is caught by the authorities and even if they are caught, they get out of it by paying a minimal fine.
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The demand for black spotted turtles in China is very high as they are considered a symbol of good luck by people who keep the turtles in their homes. Chinese and Taiwanese pharmaceutical companies also use the turtles for medicinal purposes. These turtles are also used for making jewellery and leather as well as trinkets for tourists.
The chief controller of the Sindh wildlife department, Saeed Baloch, said that officials of the department recently recovered 68 soft-shelled Chitra Indica turtles from the Karachi airport. Their insides were dried up and ready for smuggling. An FIR was registered against the smugglers and they were fined Rs5.44 million, according to the Sindh Turtles and Tortoise Protection, Conservation Act, 2015. The Sindh government also seized two bags worth of smuggled turtles in 2015. Each bag carried 218 turtles.
Baloch also said that people in interior Sindh catch turtles due to poverty, lack of education and unemployment, as it is a lucrative business. A joint operation of the federal and provincial governments, along with law enforcement agencies will soon be launched against the smuggling mafia.
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