Over 11,000 turtles and tortoises (testudines) have been illicitly poached every year in India since 2009 according to a study released by the TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network under WWF India on October 1. Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal has emerged as the two major hotspots in terms of total number of animals seized, accounting for more than 60% of all reported seizures from 19 States and 2 Union Territories (U.P., West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Odisha and Karnataka) indicating the wide expanse of illegal trade with at least 200 being smuggled per week.
A minimum of 1,11,310 freshwater turtles and tortoises have been under illicit poaching, revealed the study. Fourteen Indian species were found to be traded in which Indian star tortoise Geochelone elegans tort that accounted for 49% of the total identified species followed by softshell turtle and flapshell turtle.
The testudines are traded as pets, for food or medicine and India has been reported as one of the major source as well as consumers. The turtles and tortoise species protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, hunting, trade or any other form of utilization of the species or their body parts and derivatives is banned.
Dr Saket Badola, Head of TRAFFIC’s India office and author of the study said in a press release, “Tortoises and freshwater turtles in India are probably the most traded wildlife species in terms of their numbers in illegal trade. It is extremely worrisome to see the scale of the illegal domestic market for these species for the pet trade and for meat consumption. The size of seizures of Indian species within India is indicative of a well-organised network of collectors, transporters and traffickers operating this trade. Immediate action both in terms of law enforcement initiatives as well as awareness about the species concerned is required”.
While India being a biodiversity rich country, it has been on radar of international wildlife smugglers and traders. Turtles (especially the Black Spotted turtles) from India have been reported to be trafficked in several countries mainly in South East Asia for food or as pets. However, Badola said that it is not advisable to provide rates for the species in trade as sometimes this might turn to be an advertisement for the species or a motivation for traders to join in.
The study also revealed that the population status of the species remain unknown in India as no comprehensive study has been conducted till date, but have identified the distribution for 28 species of tortoises and freshwater turtles along with five species of marine turtles. The highest density is found in North India, where 23 species have been identified in the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and their tributaries.
Badola told the Indian Express that the two states have been on top since 2009 due to meat consumption, presence of major river systems that has the natural distribution range of these species and the sharing of closeness with international borders. “Wildlife seizure refers to the action of capturing a wildlife contraband in transit or during sale. Wildlife contraband can be in the form of live animals, body parts or derivatives of a legally protected wildlife species. Wildlife seizures are conducted by an authorised enforcement official. It is important to note that the reporting of more seizures is a direct result of better enforcement in these areas”, he said.
During the study, a total of 83,220 individuals were seized alive and 855 as dead while the rest remain unknown or unreported. The seizures included 210.5Kg of calipee, 100kg of semi-dry bones and 26 carapaces (shells).
In addition to the Indian species, the exotic turtles of 6 different species ( Red-eared Slide Trachemys scripta elegans) totaling to 37,704 were either brought or bred in India for pet trade.
When Express inquired about the challenges in addressing the issue, Badola said that the species identification has been a tough challenge over the years.
“Many a times the enforcement officials such as from the Forest Departments, police and others may not be immediately able to identify the species in trade. The identification is crucial since wildlife species are listed in different Schedules of Wildlife (Protection) Act and the legal implications attached to this may vary according to the schedule. The trade takes place in form of live animals-adults- males, females; juveniles; carapace; meat etc. It may be difficult for the officials to identify the exact species, which is very crucial,” he said.
With the study stating that most of the poaching happened by means of local transport such as buses and railways, and then through airways or ships/boats incase of international smuggling, he said that lack of awareness among transport companies about the on-going illegal wildlife trade has been identified as a major gap. Also since the number of passengers using these medium of transport is humongous, it poses a serious challenge to enforcement agencies and makes it easier for the criminals to traffic their consignments.
When inquired about the budget provisions for conservation, Badola said, “Though budgetary provisions are made to different agencies but considering the scale and expanse of such trade it is always a challenge to control such crime. TRAFFIC recommends having better trained staff and use of technologies to combat this crime. Use of Sniffers dogs to detect such illegal consignments have proven to be a very successful intervention. TRAFFIC has so far trained 66 sniffer dogs across the country which have added a new dimension to the crime detection and investigation.
He further added that a strengthened wildlife law enforcement initiatives coupled with strong public awareness campaigns is the need of the hour.
Ravi Singh, Secretary General & CEO, WWF-India added, “Turtles and tortoises are mainly scavengers and keep aquatic ecosystems clean while some species help keep populations of snails and insects in check. It is important that they are conserved in their natural habitat. We are hopeful that this study will highlight the plight of tortoises and freshwater turtles in India and will lead to enhanced awareness and related actions”.
Dr Shailendra Singh, Director of Turtle Survival Alliance India Program says that training wildlife law enforcement agencies in identifying the species in trade is crucial to combating its poaching and illegal trade.
Indian Star Tortoise was up-listed to Appendix I from Appendix II owing to its over exploitation, at the 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES CoP18) held in August, 2019.