Turtles may have won the proverbial race against rabbits for their slow but steady approach but are gradually losing the battle against humans. These living fossils have survived on this planet for almost 350 million years and have successfully adapted to almost every environmental change, but now face a number of threats which have endangered their population.
In Pakistan, freshwater turtles have a wide distribution range; they are found in Punjab, Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Balochistan in all the rivers, canals, ponds, streams and even rice fields. Their numbers, however, are now decreasing rapidly due to the high demand of freshwater turtle meat in East-Asian countries such as China, Hong Kong and Vietnam. Their body parts are also used in traditional Chinese medicines, leading to illegal exports from Pakistan. Despite being prohibited religiously, turtle meat is also consumed by some nomadic communities residing along the Indus River. This is not all, as poachers have found a new way to harm freshwater turtle species by illegally exporting them to western countries to be sold as pets. People in the USA and UK are willing to pay as much as $2,000 (approximatley Rs200,000) for a turtle, thus luring wildlife smugglers to indulge in the trade.
Black-spotted turtles are most subjected to pet trade. PHOTO CREDIT: WWF-PAKISTAN
Freshwater turtles, such as the brown roofed turtle, support livelihood of millions of fishermen by feeding upon diseased fish and should, therefore, be protected. PHOTO CREDIT: FRANCK BONIN
Despite being deemed illegal by national and international law, trading of turtles and their body parts across national borders is flourishing and five out of eight species of the freshwater turtle in Pakistan are either endangered or vulnerable, as classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Only a day after the freshwater turtle was notified as a protected species in Sindh, a consignment of 218 black spotted turtles was seized at the Jinnah International Airport, Karachi. According to customs and wildlife authorities, the consignment belonged to Sajid Cheema, a resident of Gujranwala, who was carrying them in two suitcases on a flight bound for Bangkok. The turtles were later released into their natural habitat when the Malir District Court ordered their immediate release. Later in the case, the court issued a stay order on the acquittal of the turtle smuggler which shows a small but positive trend in conservation. A consignment of 42 green turtles was also confiscated at the Allama Iqbal Airport, Lahore, in November last year while another one containing 640 black-spotted turtles was caught in December. According to Faisal Siddique, the advocate pursuing the case, turtle smuggling is not just a violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and provincial wildlife acts but also an offence of smuggling in which the offender can get up to 14 years of imprisonment.
Illeagal export of freshwater turtles is flourishing in Pakistan since they are in great demand as pets while their meat is consumed for other purposes. PHOTO CREDIT: WWF-PAKISTAN/SYED MUHAMMAD ABUBAKAR
Freshwater turtles have great ecological importance as they act as natural recyclers by feeding on dead organic matter and diseased fish. PHOTO CREDIT: WWF-PAKISTAN
Due to an increase in the number of threats to the freshwater turtle species, WWF Pakistan lobbied with the governments of Punjab and K-P to classify the species as protected, and in 2007 it was declared a protected species under the Punjab and K-P Wildlife Protection Acts. Moreover, in August last year 229 black spotted turtles were repatriated from China in a friendly ceremony held at the Pak-China border. This was made possible due to CITES — which states that any wildlife illegally exported from its home country must be returned to its country of origin — to which Pakistan is a signatory. Members of the Sindh Wildlife Department (SWD) and WWF Pakistan received the turtles and later released them into their natural habitat on September 22, 2014, after they were rehabilitated in a quarantine facility in Sukkur.
Javed Ahmed Mahar, chief conservator at the Sindh Wildlife Department, at the repatriation ceremony held at Pak-China Border. PHOTO CREDIT: WWF-PAKISTAN
The Government of Sindh has further tightened wildlife rules keeping in view the increased turtle trafficking. While previously, the fine for an entire consignment was Rs50,000, it has now been revised to Rs12,000 for each living turtle and Rs20,000 for each dead one. “Increase in fines will discourage turtle smugglers, as they will think a 100 times before indulging in such trade, “ says Javed Ahmed Mahar, chief conservator at SWD. “Even though we face immense pressure and even threats from high profile socio-political groups to back out from pursuing these turtle cases, we are determined to end this by all means.”
Peter Paul van Dijk, a turtle conservationist who co-chairs IUCN Species Survival Commission Tortoise & Freshwater Turtle Specialist group, warned that illegal turtle trade was impacting populations of freshwater turtles in Pakistan, causing them to become scarce or disappear altogether from rivers and wetlands. “If turtle trafficking and trade does not stop, the species can get critically endangered in the future which can lead to the collapse of the entire ecosystem,” says Dr Ejaz Ahmed, senior director at WWF-Pakistan. A little know fact about turtles is that they acts as natural recyclers for the ecosystem, purifying water by feeding on dead organic matter and diseased fish. Moreover, they also covertly fight against harmful algae and other matter which threatens fish populations, thus helping maintain a healthy stock. But for these ecological functions to occur at a significant level, the turtles must be part of the ecosystem in significant numbers and with significant biomass; a few turtles here and there is not enough. Concrete steps to ensure the long term survival of turtles are the need of the hour if we don’t want them to suffer the same fate as the Gharial or the fish-eating crocodile that fell prey to human recklessness as well not too long ago.
Syed Muhammad Abubakar is a freelance journalist. He tweets @SyedMAbubakar
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 1st, 2015.