Illegal Hunting & Catching of Sea Turtles

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Unabated poaching of rare sea turtles along Pakistan’s coast is adding to the looming threat to the survival of the already endangered species.

Hundreds of small and big aquariums are openly buying and selling baby turtles across the port city, the hub of this illegal trade.

Wildlife officials raided an aquarium last week on Burns Road and seized baby turtles that were on sale.

However, according to wildlife activists, there are scores of other aquariums, makeshift animal markets and vendors involved in the illegal trade across the metropolis.

Sea turtles already face a host of dangers throughout their life, from predators to human activities like pollution, boat strikes, marine debris, and (reckless) fishing. Now the growing trend of poaching is adding to the myriad of threats.

Sea turtles are creatures of the sea. That’s where they should be. That’s all the more reason to protect their coastal nesting habitats and do all that we can to clamp down on this menace. Turtles lay their eggs on beaches between October and February, which hatch in about 60 days. In Karachi, their preferred nesting sites have been the two major beaches Hawke’s Bay and Sandspit. A particularly worrying side of the illegal trade is that a large number of baby turtles cannot survive in captivity.

That is because of the difference between freshwater and saltwater turtles, according to Naveed Soomro, a Karachi-based official of the International Union of Conservation (IUCN). “People, and even the poachers, do not know the difference. Marine turtles need those specific sea conditions, which you can’t have in aquariums,” he said.

As a result, he added, marine turtles survive only a week or so after being poached, while freshwater turtles have a much higher survival rate. Ashfaq Ali Memon, head of the Marine Turtle Conservation Cell of the provincial wildlife department, endorsed Soomro’s view, saying the lack of awareness about the differences of the two species is a major contributor to the high mortality figures. He, however, contended that authorities have taken “effective measures” against poaching, which has reduced it by a “huge extent” in recent years.

Egg poaching more prevalent’

The buyers of baby turtles range from common citizens for mere recreational purposes to unqualified medical practitioners who use their parts to prepare so-called aphrodisiac medicines.

Soomro said egg poaching is a more prevalent phenomenon compared to that of baby turtles, specifically because the eggs are considered an aphrodisiac and are widely used by quacks and unqualified health practitioners to make such medicines. “Egg poaching has turned out to be more disastrous for this poor creature because of this false concept,” he said. “Our staff meticulously collects the eggs and shift them to three hatcheries for complete 60-day period,” he said, adding that the newborn turtles are then released into the sea.

The poaching of sea turtles and their eggs is not taking place on a commercial scale. However, the illegal trade of baby turtles and eggs is still reported from the sprawling coasts of Balochistan. Karachi has a restricted area, about five miles, to protect this species.

Human activities are the main factor behind the dwindling population of the rare species, rather than poaching.

Disappearing nesting grounds

Pakistan is fast losing its traditional nesting sites for sea turtles, posing another threat to the endangered species.

The country has lost 25-30 per cent of nesting grounds for turtles over the past decade due to increasing water pollution, waste dumping on beaches and reckless fishing, according to Adnan Hamid, a senior wildlife expert.

He said Sandspit and Hawke’s Bay beaches are among the 11 largest nesting sites for green turtles worldwide, but have largely been ruined because of the combination of destructive factors.

The solid waste being found on beaches includes plastic bags and diapers, which kill turtles,” he said. Until 2000, there were only a few huts along the five-mile coastal stretch, the main nesting ground for sea turtles, but they now number in the hundreds. Until the late 1990s, all five saltwater turtle species – olive ridley, green turtle, leatherback, loggerhead and hawksbill – were found nesting on Pakistan’s beaches.

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