LAHORE: Though turtles are resilient specie and they are considered living fossils for their adaptability to their environment, they are facing imminent threat to their survival in Pakistan because of human activity and their mass killing and smuggling.

This transpired during a media trip to Sukkur, organised by the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature, to highlight the illegal trade of turtles and their parts.

Though no data on turtle population in Pakistan is available with the WWF or the wildlife departments, they have been declared endangered specie. The decision is based on some IUCN studies that say various turtle species in Pakistan are under great threat because of their massive killing for their illegal trade. There has been mass mortality of river turtles in the past. At the Sukkur Barrage more than 1,000 turtles were found dead along the Indus banks. Later, autopsies showed these animals were poisoned. Similarly, 3,650kg frozen body parts of turtles were confiscated while being shipped to Vietnam at Karachi airport in 2005. In another incident, 700kg dried turtles parts were intercepted while being smuggled to China at the Jinnah international airport.

During the briefing by WWF and Sindh wildlife department officials at Sukkur, the media persons were informed that 200 live turtles smuggled to China in June 2014 were returned to Pakistan last month by Chinese authorities. These turtles will be released in their habitat after flood situation turns normal, tentatively on Sept 20.

Uzma Noreen, the WWF co-coordinator who has done extensive research on turtles and their habitat, told the media that black-spotted turtles smuggled to China in June internationally cost $1,600 per animal and people in South Asian countries kept them as pets. Ironically, these 200 turtles were kept in a plantation nursery in a small pond at Sukkur since the government did not have any proper quarantine facility, she said.

The turtles are still non-protected specie in Sindh though they are on IUCN’s red list and have been declared an endangered spice. It is being hoped the Sindh will take the step in its revised Wildlife Act.

Under the both Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Wildlife Acts turtles were declared protected species in 2007.

Ms Noreen, giving details on the importance of turtles to the eco system, said they cleared water by feeding upon dead organic material and maintained a healthy fish population by consuming diseased fish. She said they reach the age of maturity typically from five to 20 years. She said their population did not cope well once the adult animals were heavily exploited because turtles took time to get the age of maturity and produced relatively small number of eggs per female per year -- typically 1-100.

Turtles have been surviving for the last 200 million years. They are so adaptable that they are called living fossils.

The countries where turtles are mostly smuggled include Vietnam, Korea and Hong Kong. In these countries people enjoy turtle soup, jelly and meat. Officials told media during the briefing that certain communities in Dera Ismail Khan also eat turtles though not openly and sell their eggs.

Turtles are speculated to contain aphrodisiac properties and hence their body parts are used in traditional medicines. River turtles are captured for their body parts on commercial scale. Pangolin, a reptile, was also smuggled for its scales which were used for medicinal purposes. Black scorpions were also being smuggled for the same reasons.

To a question, Ms Noreen said turtle farming was not allowed as they took longer periods to get mature. Secondly, allowing such farming would make it hard to verify which turtles were from the farm and this would encourage their smuggling.

The media team also visited Sher Dil Meher village in Ghotki having some 190 mud houses of fishermen to talk about illegal trade of turtles.

Muhammad Ali Mirani, general secretary, Community Based Organisation (CBO), told the media that the WWF had been helping them in putting an end to the illegal trade. “For six to seven years there has been no hunting of turtles in this area “, Mirani claimed, adding that earlier people used to kill turtles massively. They would use nets or poisonous rats to kill or catch them, he added. Those turtles were later sold in the market against Rs400-Rs500 per kilogram.

Phelwan Meher of Gohtani Environmental Organisation said some two to thee years ago people used to take sacks full of turtles from this area. However, he said due to the WWF interventions this practice had come to an end now.

The WWF representatives told journalists that under the programme, Global Poverty Elevation Fund, WWF UK was also playing a pivotal role in livelihood improvement of Indus fishermen community. The community has been provided with livestock, orchards, biogas, vocational training, solar fans and fuel-efficient stoves.

Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2014