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Dried body parts of Indian narrow-headed softshell turtles on display at the container terminal on Thursday.—White Star
Dried body parts of Indian narrow-headed softshell turtles on display at the container terminal on Thursday.—White Star

KARACHI: A Hong Kong-bound consignment of over 4,000 dried body parts of freshwater turtles, a protected species in the country, was confiscated last week by the customs authorities at Karachi port, it emerged on Thursday.

The dried body parts were identified as those of Indian narrow-headed softshell turtles, a critically endangered and protected reptile in the country.

“This is the largest seizure involving turtles in the country’s history that might involve militant organisations.”

Also read: 200 turtles found in luggage onboard Bangkok flight

This information was shared with journalists at a press conference jointly addressed by a customs official and a Sindh wildlife conservator at the Pakistan International Container Terminal on Thursday.

“The value of a turtle is over Rs150,000 (in the black market). Investigations are under way to uncover more links in the case while an FIR has already been registered (against the proprietor) with the customs judge,” said additional collector of customs Irfan Javed, recalling that a consignment of turtle meat was seized back in 2005.

The consignment of 4,342 dried turtles weighing about 1.90 tonnes, he said, belonged to the M/S Hongda Trading Company (with National Tax Number 4130559) that had a registered DHA (Phase-V) address. The goods had been declared as dried fish maw (dried form of fish air bladder) and dried fish skin and were destined for Cheong House, 139-Des Voeux, West Hong Kong, China.

“A thorough examination, however, raised the suspicion that the consignment consisted of turtle meat, bones and skulls. This was verified by the Sindh wildlife department staff that inspected the consignment on our request.

“We were told that the consignment contained dried turtle shells, plastrons, fringes of freshwater turtles that are protected under international and national laws and exist in the entire Indus river system,” he explained.

During the question-answer session, it was pointed out most of these turtles might have been caught at the Taunsa barrage and Kalabagh areas that had a good population of turtles, though the Indian narrow-headed softshell turtles were also found in Sindh.

“There is a dire need to create awareness of the species’ importance and make laws stringent enough to discourage turtle smuggling,” said Sindh wildlife conservator Javed Ahmed Mahar.

The smuggling of turtles or any wildlife species, he said, might seem a soft crime but its financial implications were huge.

“All over the world, wildlife smuggling is now being linked to terror outfits. People have no idea how much money one could make from smuggling of wildlife species. I believe that militant organisations are involved in turtle smuggling,” he said.

Four species of freshwater turtles, he said, were found in Pakistan and they all occurred in Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“Saving the turtles is like saving our children, our people. Because they clean the water we drink so you can imagine how critical turtles are for public health and the entire ecosystem. This message must be conveyed and understood at all levels,” he said.

About turtle population, he said that though there had been no census, their number had reduced greatly in Sindh as there were now hardly seen along canals and river banks.

Turtles had a huge market in the South East Asian countries where they were considered a delicacy.

According to Mahar, the four species of freshwater turtles found in Pakistan are globally threatened and listed in the Appendices I & II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora and their import and export without a legal permit is prohibited.

Their catching, trapping, netting, using as a part or whole or derivatives, trading, transport and export were strictly prohibited as per provisions of the Sindh Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1972 and the Sindh Turtle and Tortoises Protection, Conservation and Compounding Rules, 2014, he said.

More than 200 black pond turtles, a freshwater species, were confiscated by the customs officials at Karachi airport last year. The turtles found in suitcases were destined for Bangkok.

The same year, 200 black pond turtles smuggled from Pakistan to China were repatriated. The turtles captured from Sindh were later released into the Indus River.

Published in Dawn March 6th, 2015

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