KARACHI: There is a need to take steps for the conservation of marine and freshwater turtles in Pakistan, which have been suffering because of habitat degradation, entanglement in fishing gear, climate change and illegal wildlife trade.
Five species of marine turtles are found in Pakistan, of which green turtles are the most abundant specie that nest along Pakistan’s coast. Other than marine turtles, as many as eight species of freshwater turtles and two species of land tortoises are found in the country.
The world has been celebrating World Turtle Day on May 23 since 2000. American Tortoise Rescue – a United States (US) based non-governmental organisation, initiated the day to create awareness about turtles and tortoises. The day is marked across the globe to call for human action to help these reptiles survive and thrive in their natural habitats.
There is evidence of turtles’ existence on the planet more than 100 million years ago. However, many species of the animal are now facing the threat of extinction.
The major threats faced by marine turtles in Pakistan include mortality during fishing operations, pollution, habitat degradation and climate change.
The green turtles nest on sandy shores along the Sindh and Balochistan coast. In Sindh, important nesting grounds for the turtles are Sandspit, Hawke’s Bay, and Paradise Point, whereas, along the Balochistan coast, Sonmiani, Taq in Ormara, Astola Island and Daran in Jiwani are the locations where every year thousands of marine turtles come to lay their eggs.
No confirmed report of the nesting of Olive Ridley turtles, another species which nested on Pakistani beaches some time ago, has been reported since the last 14 years. According to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) -Pakistan, the species is the most common species found in offshore areas of Pakistan.
The WWF-Pakistan has planned to install satellite tags on these turtles in October 2018 that will help determine their migration and nesting grounds. The other three marine turtle species – loggerhead, hawksbill and leatherback turtles – have been found along Pakistan’s coast rarely, However, the WWF-Pakistan has some evidence of their occurrence and distribution along the coast.
Along with marine turtles, their freshwater cousins are also confronting serious threats, which include Illegal poaching, habitat degradation, water shortage, fragmentation of rivers and canals and fishing operations. Export of freshwater turtle meat, which is banned, is considered as the main threat to these vulnerable species and it must be ensured that the ban on their meat export is implemented.
Through the efforts of WWF-Pakistan, provincial wildlife departments, Pakistan Customs and other stakeholders, many consignments containing living freshwater turtles and land tortoises, and their meat have been confiscated. These agencies are keeping a vigil to control the illegal trade of the turtle species.
Commenting on the threats being faced by turtle species in Pakistan, WWF-Pakistan Technical Adviser Muhammad Moazzam Khan said, “[Mortality of turtles is on increase] because of ever-increasing gill net fleets and ghost fishing gears”. According to him, Pakistan agreed to comply with the US requirement of having turtle excluder devices in 1999. However, because of non-implementation, the US authorities have imposed a ban on the export of shrimp from Pakistan since May 2017, he said.
Moazzam explained that in order to reduce entanglement of marine turtles in gill net fishing gears, WWF-Pakistan has convinced local fishermen to shift from surface gillnetting to subsurface gillnetting which has reduced turtle entanglements in gillnet by 95% because most turtle species inhabit surface waters. When nets are placed in the subsurface waters, turtles can easily swim over them, he said, adding that the WWF-Pakistan has also trained 300 fishermen to safely release entangled marine turtles.
WWF-Pakistan Wildlife Director Dr Babar Khan stressed the need for creating awareness among the general public, especially youth, about the importance of land tortoises and freshwater and marine turtles in the ecosystem. The turtles are facing serious threat of extinction mainly because of human activities and climate change, he said. Dr Babar stressed the need for effective monitoring of the country’s borders to ensure that the ban on trade of turtles was effectively implemented.