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Illegal trade booms as Sindh govt yet to give protected status to freshwater turtles

September 10, 2014

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Black pond turtles at the Indus Dolphin Centre in Sukkur.
Black pond turtles at the Indus Dolphin Centre in Sukkur.

KARACHI: Despite the booming illegal trade of freshwater turtles that sources say has been going on for many years in the province, the Sindh government has yet to accord protected status to the species, it emerged on Tuesday.

The issue, the sources say, has emerged once again following the recent recovery of 200 black pond turtles (Geoclemys hamiltonii) which were confiscated by Chinese authorities in their territory. Investigation showed that the consignment was sent from Sindh.

Two Pakistani and five Chinese poachers were held for the offence whereas turtles were handed over to Pakistani officials last month.

Also read: 200 smuggled turtles brought home from China

The rescued hard-shell turtles are presently undergoing rehabilitation in the Dolphin Centre, Sukkur, which has been declared their quarantine.

A consignment of black pond turtles was also confiscated last year in Bangkok, according to the information available on the internet. A Pakistani national was held on suspicion of wildlife trafficking at the airport after four suitcases on a flight from Lahore were found containing hundreds of black pond turtles, it says.

It is worth noting that eight different species of freshwater turtles are found in Pakistan — five of them are globally threatened species — namely Indian soft-shell turtle, Indian peacock soft-shell turtle, Indian narrow-headed soft-shell turtle, Indian flap-shell turtle, black spotted (pond) turtle, Indian roofed turtle, brown roofed turtle and crowned river turtle.

All eight freshwater turtle species are listed in the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora) Appendices I & II that means their import and export without a legal permit is prohibited. These turtles are found in the entire Indus River system.

Freshwater turtles were included in the Schedule III (a category of highly protected animals) of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa wildlife act through a notification issued on August 22, 2007 while in Punjab the notification for their inclusion in Schedule III was issued on November 30, 2007.

Interestingly, freshwater turtles, an important species of the local ecosystem, are not protected under the Sindh Wildlife Ordinance that the province has been following since 1972 and the ordinance specifically talks only about marine turtles. No notification for species conservation exists either.

“All marine turtles of the genera Dermochelys, Chelonia, Caretta and Eretomochelys ie, all leatherback, green or edible, hawksbill, loggerhead and tortoise-shell turtles,” says the ordinance in its list of protected animals.

According to sources, the recent turtle seizure in China is not an isolated incident and it indicates the large scale that the illegal trade has. They also question the ‘negligence’ of the Sindh Wildlife Department (SWD) for never issuing a notification for species’ protection in this regard.

“The reason why the department never bothered to issue a notification to prohibit the species’ hunting should have raised concern in wildlife circles as this loophole helps department officials ignore/allow species’ hunting,” said an official of the department, claiming that there had been instances in the past where the SWD issued no-objection certificates for freshwater turtles’ export.

On the question of wildlife department officials’ involvement in the illegal turtle trade, Sindh Conservator Wildlife Javed Mehar said that he didn’t want to comment on the happenings of the past, but now as he headed the department every step was being taken to discourage the trade.

“Though freshwater turtles are not protected under the ordinance, we look at the CITES as our own law that prohibits turtle trade as Pakistan is a signatory to the international convention. Besides, turtle export is banned under federal laws,” he explained.

The department, he said, had submitted an updated version of the wildlife law that accorded protected status to all local fauna and waiting for its approval from the government.

‘Illegal trade rife’

The only data available on freshwater turtle trade is of the Pakistan Wetlands Programme of World Wide Fund of Nature-Pakistan that conducted surveys from 2007 to 2009 to investigate turtle trade in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh. The surveys confirmed that the illegal turtle trade was going on in all the three provinces.

The stretch of the Indus River in Sindh and its major canals and tributaries, in addition to the Kotri, Sukkur and Guddu barrages, were studied during the survey that revealed that turtle trade was taking place throughout the region while the business was introduced at major barrages of the Indus River in 2003.

“Illegal trade is a major threat to turtle survival in Pakistan that has brought a significant decline in their number over the years. What we have seen over the years is that poachers, who were earlier targeting only soft-shell turtles, are now also catching hard-shell turtles,” said Uzma Noureen, who has been researching freshwater turtles for many years and is currently working as project coordinator of WWF-P’s Indus River Dolphin Conservation project.

The current population status of the species in Pakistan is unknown, though some past studies exist. Known as scavengers, the turtles feed on dead organic matter in the water and play a very important ecological role in cleaning water, she said.

“Freshwater turtles being the most important component of an aquatic ecosystem need to be protected and conserved on a priority basis and the Sindh government must act in this regard.

“Wildlife and customs authorities deputed at exit points [sea ports, airports, provincial and country borders] should be well trained in identifying species and their body parts. Local communities should be sensitised to and made aware of the ecological role and importance of turtles in aquatic ecosystems,” she said.

Published in Dawn, September 10th , 2014