Also published on ATP
A news report, and some gruesome pictures associated with it, recently caught my attention. I had not heard about the turtle population in Pakistan for many years now, and was somehow under the impression that steps taken by government to ban poaching and export had resulted in significant protection of the turtle habitats.
Well, according to the news item, a study conducted by the WWF-Pakistan at the Taunsa Wildlife Sanctuary concluded that that the turtle population not only faces brutality at the hands of poachers, but is also under threat of extinction.
Unlike many other topics that people in our country love to discuss around chai-time, protection of wildlife, and in this case turtles, has never gained popularity. The result of our collective social apathy towards the issue has resulted in significant loss of wildlife, and endangerment of precious species.
Pakistan is known to have at least eight freshwater turtle and two tortoise species. These are mostly found along the rivers in Sindh and Punjab, and also in parts of NWFP. The spotted pond turtle, crowned river turtle and Afghan tortoise are some of the more well known species, which are also included in the IUCN Red Data Book’s List of Internationally Threatened Species.
It is understood that the various body parts of the turtle, especially the fresh water turtle, have become ‘hot export items’. Fisherman in Sindh and Punjab are found illegally hunting turtles and in some cases, a turtle is killed for a mere payment of 2 to 4 US dollars. The bulk of turtle exports, worth millions of dollars, are destined for Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, China and Taiwan where the soft shells and chest pellicles of the turtles are in the manufacture of Traditional Chinese Medicines. The practitioners of these medicines believe that the turtle shells are highly effective for purifying blood and curing many diseases.
According to a source, Pakistani local entrepreneurs in northern Punjab realized the export value of freshwater turtles in the early 1990s when workers of South Korean company ‘Daewoo’ came there to build a six-lane highway.
The extent to which illegal hunting of turtles (fresh water and marine) has become common place, and the brutality shown by the hunters is surprising and disgusting:
Estimates given by the collectors reveal in the research that one group of people can manage to collect over 200 turtles every week from one site. One can imagine the possibility of the survival of any turtle when the group uses to camp at one site for months, it adds.
The report says: “A number of people living in the riverine belts camp for months together at the bank of a canal at the Taunsa Barrage where they hunt the turtles from the wild and supply them to some traders in Lahore.”
Quoting one of the hunters, it says, tens of similar groups are operating all over the country in the same business. The most gruesome aspect of this story is that they kill turtles only to obtain a small hinder part of the carapace of soft shell turtles known in scientific terminology as “Aspederatus gangaticus” and “Chitra indica”.
“These cruel people nail the live turtle with an arrow, chop the required part of its body and throw it there to die. After obtaining the required part, they boil them in the container, clean them and finally dry them. The finished form changes into a shape that even an experienced herpetologist can hardly identify it as a turtle part,” explains the report.
It is clear that the legal hurdles placed in the way of illegal hunting has proven largely useless so far. For example, the WWF study observed that in Sindh fishermen are involved in turtle hunting while in Punjab vagrant groups have been found engaged in the activity:
If a turtle meat/shell consignment is found, it is confiscated. The offender is given the option, either to go to court or solve the matter internally with the department by paying some fine. The wildlife department fines (the wrongdoer) depending on the gravity of the crime and the protection status of the area where the crime was committed.
In court, the compensation varies and usually the offenders get away with a minor penalty. The penalties for offender are meager and the trade itself is so lucrative that it is worth taking the associated risks.
Ofcourse the illegal hunters are not the only source of the problem. For example, the most commonly found turtles along the beaches of Karachi are known as Green Turtles. They are one of the seven marine turtles found in the world, and are the largest species of marine turtles after the Leatherbacks. It is Pakistan’s unique treasure that a significan percentage of the world’s green turtle population lays their eggs and builds their nests on the beaches of Sandspit and Hawksbay, on the shores of Karachi, and in Jiwani, a coastal town in the western part of the Makran Coast.
These turtle populations are in grave danger because of significant human footprint in their eco-systems. Excessive construction of beach huts and other buildings along the beaches are destroying some of the habitats used for breeding. Pollution, especially from the picnickers, is another major problem on the beaches in Karachi.
People go for picnics and outings and carelessly dispose of their garbage, which usually includes plastic bags, on the shoreline. During high tide, the water takes the garbage along with it into the sea. Green turtles usually eat jellyfish, which resembles the plastic bags, and hence, these turtles literally eat the bags and die!
Pakistan is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) which envisaged protection of the freshwater and marine turtle species in the country. It can only be hoped that the relevant authorities would pay more attention to this crime against an endangered population before time runs out.
A few years ago (in 1998), Pakistan, along with Malaysia and Thailand, had succesfully argued before WTO that it had created significant plans to protect turtle populations. These countries pleaded they had several conservation programmes that included the collection and incubation of turtle eggs and the release of baby sea turtles. India, Pakistan and Thailand also maintained that their cultures embraced a traditional belief that it was sinful to kill sea turtles.
Now it seems that programme may also have slowed down, and certainly even less emphasis is given to the protection of fresh water turtles than marine turtles. Conservationists argue that the government has not even carried out a freshwater turtle census, and hence the rate at which they are disappearing cannot even be known. They advise setting up of turtle farms, without which freshwater turtles would soon disappear from the country. A good start, but obviously not enough. According to the Indian Ocean – South-East Asian (IOSEA) Marine Turtle Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), the year 2006 was the ‘Year of Turtles.’ It is now 2007, and I am still hoping to hear if our government is tackling this issue seriously.
p.s. As a part of the ‘Year of Turtle’ activities, WWF – Pakistan, in collaboration with the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., and the Sindh Wildlife Department, recently installed transmitters on two marine turtles at Sandspit, Karachi coast. You can track Chandni III and Chandni IV online. Click here.