KARACHI: Mass indiscriminate killing of freshwater turtles, a protected species, has been continuing on both sides of the River Indus from Guddu Barrage to the Indus delta for more than a month, sources told Dawn.
The recent surge in poachers’ activities, according to the sources, has been due to prevailing acute water shortages, making these endangered reptiles vulnerable.
A number of poachers’ groups, they said, were involved in the brutal slaughter of turtles; some were poisoning them while others bludgeoning them to death as they came out of water to feed on the bait.
According to sources, a poachers’ group, including four women, was recently spotted in Alif Kacho, an area located along upstream Sukkur Barrage, last week before the wildlife department took notice and arrested one person.
“I saw people hitting turtles with a sharp object. They also got a jute bag filled with dried parts of turtles,” Mohammad Khan, a Sukkur-based resident, told Dawn on the phone.
Mr Khan happened to be in the same area with his friends when a poachers’ group was active.
According to sources, some poachers’ groups have come from Rahim Yar Khan and are coordinating with each other to meet a certain target.
“Often, turtle meat/parts are dried and later smuggled out of the country either through Karachi or Lahore,” a wildlife department official said on condition of anonymity.
The killing of turtles was indiscriminate and all species of hard and soft shelled-turtles had been targeted. However, only soft-shelled turtles were being picked up for collection as they were in high demand in the Chinese market, he added.
Upon contact, conservator wildlife Taj Mohammad Sheikh said that he couldn’t confirm poachers’ alleged activities, but had ordered an inquiry.
“The report being prepared by the deputy conservator of Sukkur will be available next week which I will share with you,” he said, adding that so far the department had arrested one person who claimed that he had come from Rahim Yar Khan in Punjab.
On turtle mortalities, he said: “The man was caught with two dead turtles. Another alleged trafficker dealing in turtles has been arrested from Shikarpur. But no turtle was found from his custody,” he said.
It is important to recall here that illegal trade of freshwater turtles, a protected species, has seen a dramatic increase in recent years, especially in Sindh and Punjab, where their population has declined up to 80 per cent.
Eight species of freshwater turtles are found in Pakistan and their habitat exists in Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Experts describe loss of these endangered reptiles as devastating for environment as turtles are among the key species which keep aquatic environment clean by feeding upon dead organic material and dead fish.
Recent surveys conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in collaboration with Sindh wildlife department have identified districts of Thatta, Sujawal, Sanghar, Shaheed Benazirabad (Nawabshah), Badin and Karachi as hotspots of illegal turtle trade in Sindh.
“There is no defined season for collecting freshwater turtles and the species is caught throughout the year. It was noted during field surveys that some poachers during their hunt for turtles, also catch other reptiles and mammals that they may encounter. For instance, snakes, monitor lizards, hedgehogs, jackals, jungle cats, otters and crocodiles,” said the report.
Citing some other surveys, the report said that freshwater turtles caught in the interior districts of Sindh were destined for Karachi, from where these turtles or their body parts were smuggled to other countries such as Hong Kong, other parts of China, South Korea and Vietnam (via air or sea routes).
Some traffickers, the report said, had extended their network to Quetta, and used the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to smuggle wildlife through illegal means.
It also pointed out that locals, particularly fishermen, were found unaware of the ecological role the turtles played in the river ecosystem and considered them as harmful to fish economy.
In Balochistan, freshwater turtles were seen in three canals of Jaffarabad and Nasirabad districts but there was no evidence of turtle targeting.
Apart from other factors, according to the report, degradation and destruction of habitat was also contributing to decline in turtle population.
Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2018