MULTAN, May 20: While cruising alongside the rivers and water channels these days, one may have to undergo a painful experience of watching the members of nomadic riverine communities brutalizing the freshwater turtles. The hunters either use the angling technique or strike with spears to fish out, perhaps, the oldest creature among the surviving organisms on the planet. They use poultry waste to trap the turtles through fishhooks.

After pulling out the captured turtle, they start beating its head with the blunt side of an axe. When the unfortunate victim of savagery seems to have fallen unconscious, its tormentors start peeling off its shell from the rear without bothering whether the victim has perished or not.

Another blow of the blunt edge would hammer its head back into the shell as if some breaths may have left and the turtle had pushed out its neck in pain.

“It can bite with its very sharp teeth,” said a turtle catcher while justifying the maltreatment being meted out to the hapless creature. The turtle was left in the open to putrefy after peeling off the softer part of its shell and pellicle covering its chest.

He said the turtle-hunting had become a popular occupation among the riverine communities in the recent years, as some businessmen from Lahore paid Rs40 to Rs60 for a pair of soft shell and pellicle. He said there were days when they could not find even a single turtle, but now on an average an individual (hunter) collected 10 to 20 pieces (turtles) in a day.

“And sometimes it happens that a hunter scores more than 100 scalps,” he said, adding “but it comes about rarely.”

He said the buyer(s) would come to cart off the turtle shells whenever they (hunters) informed them that 600 or more pieces had been collected. “The buyers say that the shells are needed to be used to prepare medicines,” the poacher said while peeling off the shell of his fresh catch in a manner as he would be saying “by the way, I don’t care about what kind of use the buyer make of the shells.”

He and some other poachers also showed visiting cards showing addresses and telephone numbers of the buyers based in Lahore. A number of the cards were carrying names of some Chinese firms.

After initial reluctance, one of the buyers of the turtle shells agreed to meet this correspondent in Lahore. He said the soft shells and chest pellicles were in great demand by the manufacturers of the Traditional Chinese Medicines. The TCM practitioners say the turtle shells are highly effective to purify blood, cure diseases and to bestow longevity.

He said he used to be a small-time importer of Chinese silk cloths when some TCM manufacturers approached him for the export of turtle shells against a fair profit margin. On returning the country, he said, he consulted the Punjab Wildlife Department to know whether they issued a licence for turtle hunting. But, the officials told him that one didn’t need to have a licence for this purpose.

Subsequently, he said, he contacted the Punjab Fisheries Department but he was told that the department had no concern with aquatic species other than the fish. “They rather said that wiping out turtles would be a national service because they eat fish and bite buffaloes,” he said.

The buyer said he hired the services of the riverine communities and started exporting the turtle shells when the two departments he supposed had some stakes did not show any interest. He said he just had to get the shells collected and stock them at his godown because it was the responsibility of the TCM manufacturers to transport them from Pakistan to China either by using the Silk Highway or sea route.

He said some 1,000 to 1,200 poachers worked for him in different parts of the province and he supplied around 25,000 turtle shells per annum to the TCM manufacturers. “One should applaud my services because I am not only providing employment to the poverty-stricken riverine communities, but also supplying raw material to cure the patients at the cost of a valueless creature,” he boasted.

He said there were some other people also involved in the supply of turtle shells from Pakistan to the TCM manufacturers. “The trade volume of some of them is even greater than mine,” he said. He, however, regretted that the government was not allowing turtle meat export for the reasons unknown.

“The turtle meat is considered to be a delicacy in the far eastern Asian countries and, thus, fetches more price than the shells alone,” he commented.

According to conservationists, turtles and tortoises play many important roles at the ecological stage. As consumers of plants and other animals they are links to the energetic webs in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. The loss of any turtle species, each of which represents over 200 million years of evolution, persistence, and genetic information, would create a void that can never be filled by other species.

When talked, Punjab Wildlife Department’s Mian Muhammad Abbas said the Punjab Wildlife Act of 1974 though protected the reptiles, including snakes and various kinds of lizards, through its third schedule, it was silent about turtles. “We can’t take action without being empowered to do so,” he added.

However, a former director-general of the department, Dr Aleem Chaudhry, expressed a different view. He said under the wildlife act the department was the custodian of all the reptiles living in the wilds. He regretted that there had been no considerable research on the freshwater turtles in Pakistan.

He said though Pakistan was among the foremost signatories to the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), which included a host of turtle species for protection against their becoming extinct, but then there was no reliable data to know which of the turtle species were covered under the convention.

He said the turtle-killing spree could be checked even through a notification by the provincial secretary of the department concerned if the present laws were deficient to do so.

“It just requires a strong will and a little sympathy for the poor creature on the part of the authorities concerned,” he remarked.

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