World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan’s Dr Masood Arshad says that trade of hard shell turtles is also on the rise. “Only five per cent of their total population remains in Pakistan,” he said.
In Sindh, the illegal trade of turtles is common.
The business of turtle smuggling started 15 years ago and it has driven eight kinds of turtles to the verge of extinction, including the black-pond turtle. The soft shell and the hard shell turtles have almost disappeared.
The laws are lax, the punishment soft and the rewards lucrative. “There is no need for a permit to buy and sell turtles,” said Zeeshan Ahmed, who illegally buys and sells turtles and other endangered species. “All the government can do is impose a fine of several thousand rupees.”
Air and sea ports have no mechanism in place to prevent turtle smuggling. “No one can stop the trade until sniffer dogs are deployed at the exit points,” said a senior wildlife official. “We aren’t allowed to deploy people at airports, so smuggling them out is an easy job.”
The turtles were seized from the luggage of a Chinese national at a check post in Sost near the Pak-China border, Wildlife Conservator Wilayat Noor said. He said the Chinese national has been arrested and the turtles have been transported to Gilgit.
“It is a big achievement as we have recovered all the turtles alive. I appreciate the efforts of all those who made it possible,” said Noor.
A border guard of the GB forest department said the Chinese national’s luggage was checked after his behaviour “seemed suspicious”. Upon inspection, they found the turtles hidden in cardboard boxes and bags.
A senior conservationist at WWF Gilgit office said the man was taken into custody and presented before the court of a civil judge in Hunza. The judge indicted the Chinese national and fined him Rs2,000 under the Wildlife Act 1975.
Investigation revealed that the accused spent nearly three months in Rawalpindi, picking up the turtles from various areas of the Pothohar region, including the Kallar Kahar Lake.
“These are the freshwater turtles found in the Pothohar region of Pakistan,” said the head of WWF for Nature in GB. He said these species of turtles are categorised as “threatened” under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and are in high demand in China for their skin and meat. One turtle is sold for around Rs150,000, he added.
Divisional Forest Officer Wildlife said the lives of the turtles were in danger as they have been kept away from their natural habitat for quite long. “The biggest task at hand is their immediate rehabilitation and for that matter we have made arrangements,” he said, adding that the turtle would be released in lakes such as the Kallar Kahar Lake.
Four of the 34 freshwater turtles seized by forest department officials on the Pakistan-China border died during transportation from Gilgit to Islamabad.
Unfortunately, four of them died on the way to Islamabad. The head of WWF Gilgit said the remaining 30 turtle were released in Korung River in Islamabad. “We were able to identify three different species of freshwater turtles from the consignment,” he said. Twenty of them were Indian softshell turtles, three were Indian flapshell turtles and seven were Brown roofed turtles.
The meat and skin of the endangered species is said to be in high demand in China.
In Pakistan, freshwater turtles have a wide distribution range; they are found in the Punjab, Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Balochistan in all the rivers, canals, ponds, streams and even rice fields. Their numbers, however, are now decreasing rapidly due to the high demand of freshwater turtle meat in East-Asian countries such as China, Hong Kong and Vietnam. Their body parts are also used in traditional Chinese medicines, leading to illegal exports from Pakistan. Despite being prohibited religiously, turtle meat is also consumed by some nomadic communities residing along the Indus River. This is not all, as poachers have found a new way to harm freshwater turtle species by illegally exporting them to western countries to be sold as pets. People in the USA and UK are willing to pay as much as $2,000 for a turtle, thus luring wildlife smugglers to indulge in the trade.
Despite being deemed illegal by national and international law, trading of turtles and their body parts across national borders is flourishing and five out of eight species of the freshwater turtle in Pakistan are either endangered or vulnerable, as classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Only a day after the freshwater turtle was notified as a protected species in Sindh, a consignment of 218 black spotted turtles was seized at the Karachi Airport. According to customs and wildlife authorities, the consignment belonged to Sajid Cheema, a resident of Gujranwala, who was carrying them in two suitcases on a flight bound for Bangkok. The turtles were later released into their natural habitat when the Malir District Court ordered their immediate release. Later in the case, the court issued a stay order on the acquittal of the turtle smuggler which shows a small but positive trend in conservation. A consignment of 42 green turtles was also confiscated at the Allama Iqbal Airport, Lahore, in November last year while another one containing 640 black-spotted turtles was caught in December. According to Faisal Siddique, the advocate pursuing the case, turtle smuggling is not just a violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and provincial wildlife acts but also an offence of smuggling in which the offender can get up to 14 years of imprisonment.
Due to an increase in the number of threats to the freshwater turtle species, WWF Pakistan lobbied with the governments of Punjab and K-P to classify the species as protected, and in 2007 it was declared a protected species under the Punjab and K-P Wildlife Protection Acts.
Moreover, in August last year 229 black spotted turtles were repatriated from China in a friendly ceremony held at the Pak-China border. This was made possible due to CITES — which states that any wildlife illegally exported from its home country must be returned to its country of origin — to which Pakistan is a signatory. Members of the Sindh Wildlife Department (SWD) and WWF Pakistan received the turtles and later released them into their natural habitat on September 22, 2014, after they were rehabilitated in a quarantine facility in Sukkur.
The Government of Sindh has further tightened wildlife rules keeping in view the increased turtle trafficking. While previously, the fine for an entire consignment was Rs 50,000, it has now been revised to Rs 12,000 for each living turtle and Rs 20,000 for each dead one. “Increase in fines will discourage turtle smugglers, as they will think a 100 times before indulging in such trade,“ says Javed Ahmed Mahar, chief conservator at SWD. “Even though we face immense pressure and even threats from high profile socio-political groups to back out from pursuing these turtle cases, we are determined to end this by all means.”
Peter Paul van Dijk, a turtle conservationist who co-chairs IUCN Species Survival Commission Tortoise & Freshwater Turtle Specialist group, warned that illegal turtle trade was impacting populations of freshwater turtles in Pakistan, causing them to become scarce or disappear altogether from rivers and wetlands. “If turtle trafficking and trade does not stop, the species can get critically endangered in the future which can lead to the collapse of the entire ecosystem,” says Dr Ejaz Ahmed, senior director at WWF-Pakistan. A little know fact about turtles is that they acts as natural recyclers for the ecosystem, purifying water by feeding on dead organic matter and diseased fish. Moreover, they also covertly fight against harmful algae and other matter which threatens fish populations, thus helping maintain a healthy stock. But for these ecological functions to occur at a significant level, the turtles must be part of the ecosystem in significant numbers and with significant biomass; a few turtles here and there is not enough. Concrete steps to ensure the long term survival of turtles are the need of the hour if we don’t want them to suffer the same fate as the Gharial or the fish-eating crocodile that fell prey to human recklessness as well not too long ago.