KARACHI, April 6: Snake charmer tribes, with influential connections in Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab, are swiftly robbing the country of its wealth of reptiles, which are smuggled to different countries where they fetch a hefty price. Though habitat degradation remains the major threat to these creatures, the silent operation of these entrepreneurs for decades has greatly contributed to the loss of many species.

These facts were highlighted in a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) preliminary draft report under the Indus for All Programme. The research, a baseline study with reference to amphibians and reptiles, is an outcome of a month long field expeditions carried out last year in all the five prioritised ecosystems of the Indus eco-region including Keti Bunder, Keenjhar Lake, Chotiari Reservoir, Pai Forest and Keti Shah riverine forest and their buffer zones.

According to the report, Pakistan possessed a number of reptile species being traded in the world. They included levantine viper, blotched diadem snake, striped keel-back, bronze grass-skink, brown river turtle, yellow-belly common house gecko, waif gecko, spotted barn gecko, red-striped skink, fat-tailed gecko, common tree lizard, Persian spider gecko, black rock agama and yellow-head rock agama.

During visits to the five strategic sites, the WWF team noticed a drastic decline in the population of some lizards, for instance bronze grass-skink, fat-tailed gecko, spiny-tailed ground lizard and red-stripped skink. The illegal trade of reptiles was particularly common at Keenjhar Lake.

“The number of fat-tailed gecko, a very rare species of lizards, has fallen to a great extent. It was only found at Keenjhar Lake, a wildlife sanctuary and a Ramsar site, where its population has steadily declined due to hunting by jogis and merciless killing by locals who considered it venomous. Spiny-tailed ground lizard, listed in the CITES Appendix-II as endangered, faces a similar fate,” according to the report.

Elaborating upon the threats to Bengal monitor, listed under CITES Appendix-I, the report says that these lizards are hunted for their skins and oil, made from visceral fat, which is used for the treatment of failing eyesight.

Among the vanishing snakes, tortoise and turtles included rope snake or dhaman, rock python, star tortoise, Indian soft-shell turtle, narrow-headed soft-shell turtle and Indian flap-shell turtle.

“Jogis involved in the illegal smuggling of geckos, turtles, tortoises and snakes, receive a lucrative amount from the agents based in Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan. Besides, “hakims” are also responsible for falling reptilian population as they recommend different reptilian species and their parts as a cure for several ailments,” the report said.

The report claims that Chotiari reservoir has a great significance pertaining to natural history of herpetofauna where marsh crocodiles, endangered under the IUCN’s red data list, saw-scaled viper and rock python, designated as globally endangered, are found. However, the destruction of natural habitat and illegal catching of these reptiles for their valuable skin has greatly reduced their number.

About the illegal trade of freshwater turtles, the study, citing wildlife officials states that illegal trade of turtles continues in Peshawar, Swabi, Mardan, and Charsadda on a large scale. Some hunters from Punjab, it says, admitted that the population had decreased considerably.

The report also contains the details of a meeting with a jogi, Maulo operating in Makli graveyard, Thatta, who allowed the WWF team see over 500 live specimens of various reptiles he had in his possession. His entire family, comprising about 100 members, was involved in illegal trade.

Threats to reptiles and amphibians identified in the report included deforestation of mangroves, lack of freshwater in water bodies, indiscriminate use of fishing nets and a lack of a sewerage and solid waste disposal system as extensive farmland and agricultural activities are causing pesticide contamination in the sea and ground water.

The report also points out human fear towards all types of reptiles as one of the major factors in reducing reptilian population and stresses creating awareness about the significant role reptiles play in nature especially in controlling the population of rodent pests.

“All lizards and snakes are regarded as poisonous by locals and thus are killed on sight. Some of the reptilian species protected under IUCN categories, are playfully killed on roads. The road-kill of monitor lizards is increasing at a rapid scale due to construction work,” it states, while suggesting workshops for awareness and alternate means for livelihood for communities.

The study is unique in the sense that some of the species of amphibians and reptiles were collected for the first time from the study areas with no previous definite records. It stresses the need for a comprehensive herpetological research in these areas, which, it says, can lead to new findings.