Published On: Mon, May 23rd, 2016

World Turtle day: WWF-Pakistan stresses the need for concrete measures for turtle conservation

Common green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) swimming on ground with remora fish on its back. Indo-Pacific Ocean- Photo courtesy WWF-Pakistan

Common green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) swimming on ground with remora fish on its back. Indo-Pacific Ocean- Photo courtesy WWF-Pakistan

Staff Report
Lahore, Punjab: On the occasion of World Turtle Day, WWF-Pakistan stressed the need to take concrete efforts to develop an organised conservation strategy for turtles, to conserve the existing population and provide an environment where they can increase in number.

Freshwater turtles in Pakistan, like leopards, are protected under Schedule III of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Wildlife Protection laws and also being added in the revised wildlife protection act of Sindh. However, regardless of status the species is poached across the country to be kept as a pet in aquariums and exported to East Asian countries for use in traditional medicine.

Pakistan is home to eight species of freshwater turtles, which are found in the entire Indus River system including its tributaries, irrigation canals, ponds and water reservoirs. These turtle species play an important role in keeping the aquatic ecosystem clean by feeding on dead organic material and fish. The aquatic ecosystem is made up of very intricate food webs and scientists consider freshwater turtles to be keystone species, i.e. removing them would cause the whole structure to collapse.

In addition to this five species of marine turtles has been previously reported from the country based. WWF-Pakistan during the past three years has been able to authentically report, for the first time, live specimens of three rare species of marine turtles including loggerhead, hawksbill and leatherback from Pakistani coast. Working with Wildlife Departments of the two Maritime Provinces i.e. Sindh and Balochistan, a number of projects have been implemented which aimed to protect the marine turtles. These projects have resulted in an increase in population of green turtles in Pakistan.

Olive Ridley Turtle coming ashore to lay eggs, Costa Rica, Pacific Coast. Photo Courtesy: WWF-Pakistan

Olive Ridley Turtle coming ashore to lay eggs, Costa Rica, Pacific Coast. Photo Courtesy: WWF-Pakistan

Rab Nawaz, Senior Director Biodiversity of WWF-Pakistan highlighted that the populations of most of the freshwater turtle species of Pakistan are listed under the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Pakistan is a signatory to this convention.

He pointed out that the illegal trade of black spotted turtles escalated internationally in recent years and indicates an overall pattern of demand mostly from East Asian countries. He urged that regional-scale efforts are required to diminish the supply chain of this illicit business. He also highlighted lacunas in the existing national and provincial laws, which deal with wildlife crimes in Pakistan, and low penalties further promote illegal trade which also needs immediate attention as effective deterrents.

Hamad Naqi Khan, Director General WWF-Pakistan, in a message on World Turtle Day said that, “Illegal trade of turtles in Pakistan is hampering the population of species, which is affecting ecosystem services that freshwater turtles provide. Many freshwater turtle species in Pakistan are either endangered or vulnerable and if turtle trafficking and trade does not stop, the species will become critically endangered in future which can lead to the collapse of entire ecosystems. WWF -Pakistan has been facilitating provincial wildlife departments to curb this illegal trade by extending its help in the rescue and release of turtles in their natural habitats and will continue with its efforts.”

Turtle species of the world are facing serious threats to their likely survival due to environmental changes. The major problem with existing wild populations of turtles in the country is caused by illegal trade in body parts of softshell species on a commercial scale. The scale of illegal trade can be gauged from the fact that in the year 2015 five consignments carrying 1,345 live freshwater turtles and 1.9 tonnes of their body parts (including dried meat and bones) were ceased by law enforcement agencies at various airports across the country bound for different East Asian countries. Pakistan Customs officials have ceased four consignments already this year and rescued about 700 black-spotted turtles from illegal wildlife traffickers.

To curb the menace of illegal trade and trafficking of freshwater turtles WWF-Pakistan as part of its project Combating Illegal Wildlife Trade by Establishing a National Monitoring Network that Benefits Local Communities and Environment, supported by USAID through its Small Grants and Ambassador’s Fund Program, is developing a national level action plan by involving relevant stakeholders to control illegal wildlife trade in the country. The project is also building capacities of the relevant law enforcement agencies to monitor and control wildlife crimes through trainings and the provision of the latest technologies. WWF-Pakistan plans to initiate an awareness campaign at every important entry and exit point of the country in collaboration with Civil Aviation Authority. WWF-Pakistan recently conducted an undercover market study in 26 cities of Pakistan, in which it was discovered that all markets were dealing in the illegal trade of protected species including turtles.

Other threats to freshwater turtles in Pakistan include habitat deterioration and fragmentation due to unsustainable development; scarcity of water in rivers, canals and water diversion and extraction projects for irrigation purpose; and water pollution. Human-wildlife conflict is adding to severity of catastrophe. Due to lack of awareness regarding the ecological role of turtles in river ecosystems, the species is perceived to be harmful to the fish economy by fishermen.

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