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Alarming rise in global trade of rare turtles

September 29, 2014

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AN official holds two black spotted turtles seized at Suvarnbhumi international airport.
AN official holds two black spotted turtles seized at Suvarnbhumi international airport.

KARACHI: Illegal international trade of the black spotted turtle has escalated rapidly over the past two years, says a recently published report.

The main trade chain for these turtles, according to the report, appears to start in South Asia (Bangladesh, India and Pakistan), where animals are collected, and subsequently sent for ‘wholesale’ in Thailand.

Know more: 200 turtles found in luggage onboard Bangkok flight

The report, “Escalating black spotted turtle (Geoclemys hamiltonii) trade in Asia: a study of seizures,” is published by the Southeast Asia Regional Office of TRAFFIC, The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, a strategic alliance between international union for conservation of nature (IUCN) and world wide fund for nature (WWF).

Information on the black spotted turtle trade in Asia was compiled through a desktop study analysing reported seizures between Jan 2008 and March 2014.

The black spotted turtle is listed as ‘vulnerable’ in the IUCN red list and in appendix I of the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora (CITES), which means all international commercial trade is illegal and in violation of the convention.

According to the report, more than 1,960 animals were seized in 22 seizures between Jan 2008 and March 2014, with at least 1,865 turtles seized in 14 seizures from Jan 2013 onwards.

“A steep rise in the total number of animals seized is evident, as is a shift towards larger shipments of black spotted turtles in 2013 and 2014. Information received by TRAFFIC from anonymous sources also indicates a massive rise in the trade in this species, with demand reportedly escalating in Thailand,” said the report.

It said that all seizures in East and Southeast Asia, excepting two, had taken place at international airports, suggesting that the preferred smuggling method was by air and that airports were important gateways for this type of trade. This appeared to be the case for many species for tortoises and freshwater turtles in the illegal international trade, it added.

Bangkok, according to the report, appears to be a significant hub for this species, with 1,112 of all black spotted turtles seized (57 per cent) confiscated at two international airports in Bangkok in nine seizures during the period reviewed. In fact, a total of 594 black spotted turtles were confiscated there in three seizures alone within a week in early Nov 2013.

The modus operandi for most airport cases was to conceal the animals in check-in passenger luggage and, in five cases the bags were uncollected with no sign of the owners.

At least, 14 seizures contained other freshwater turtle and tortoises species as well, including species popular in the black market pet trade such as Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans) and radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata), listed in appendix I and appendix II of CITES, respectively.

Four shipments of 13 seized black spotted turtles were recorded in the CITES database, all of which took place in 2008 and 2009.

“Mapping of trade route suggests that black spotted turtles leave South Asia predominantly through Bangladesh, transit through Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, and continue to destinations in East Asia including Hong Kong and Taipei. It may be noted that as illegal trade may take place undetected along other routes, this map doesn’t illustrate the entirety of trade routes,” the report said.

Citing 2009 and 2010 data, the report said that the species had been reportedly sought after for use as pets and meat. Prior trade of black spotted turtles as pets was largely destined for collectors in the United States and Western Europe.

More recently, however, the species has been recorded in pet markets in Southeast Asia and East Asia. Dozens of black spotted turtles were recorded during 2006-2009 market surveys at the Chatuchak Market in Bangkok, increasing from two in Aug 2006 to a high of 28 individuals in June 2009.

“In a separate survey in Kuching, Malaysia, hatchlings were found on sale for approximately $243 each. Significant numbers are also caught throughout its range for consumption of the meat which traditionally centred in eastern India but in recent years black spotted turtles have been observed in urban meat markets in China,” the report stated while quoting different sources.

Weak prosecution

Out of the 12 cases where the courier was apprehended, the report said, 10 resulted in recorded arrests; the outcomes of the other two cases were unknown. In two of the five cases of abandoned bags, the name under which the bags were registered was known but no follow-up investigations were recorded.

The prosecution processes were infrequently followed through beyond confiscation and arrest. In circumstances where this did happen, the information was either not available or not reported. Only two cases had prosecutions publicly reported.

Referring to a case reported in Hong Kong, the report said that a Thai man arrested for smuggling 338 freshwater turtles was merely sentenced to three-month imprisonment.

Of the 22 cases of seizures highlighted in the report, two involved Pakistan; in one case a Pakistani national, who had flown from Lahore, was arrested with 470 black spotted turtles at Bangkok airport while in the other case, 320 black spotted turtles were seized from a man at Islamabad airport. Both cases occurred last year.

“Commercial trade of the black spotted turtle is likely to be higher than seizure records indicate. Research shows that organised crime groups are also moving animals through cargo in larger volumes,” the report pointed out.

The black spotted turtle is protected by national laws in each of its four range states — Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. It is distributed from eastern Pakistan through northern India and Nepal to Bangladesh and northeast India. Currently, there is no record of CITES-registered legal commercial breeding centre of this species in range states.

The report recommended strong regional cooperation across the eight countries of the South Asian Wildlife Enforcement Network to raise awareness of this issue and address poaching and illegal export of black spotted turtles with specific priority in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan.

“Greater vigilance at known gateways especially international airports in Dhaka, Bangkok and Hong Kong is required. The CITES Secretariat should closely monitor and follow up with parties that repeatedly fail to address illegal trade,” it said.

Improved prosecution and stronger penalties by legal and prosecution systems are required as effective deterrents. Ca se preparation and securing of evidence, as well as the awareness of the judiciary and maximising application of existing penalties under the legislation are both required for this.

“The CITES Management Authority of range states and jurisdictions where seizures have taken place should collaborate on easing procedures for repatriation to range states to enable the return of confiscated animals to wild population from which they were originally taken from following IUCN species reintroduction guidelines,” the report said.

Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2014