As the smuggling networks strengthen, India continues to bear the ignominy of being the source of the illegal trade and export of tortoises and freshwater turtles (TFT).
The detection of a staggering 58,442 smuggled amphibians over five years, demonstrates the persistence of the illegal trade despite increasing enforcement, reveals the recently-conducted study by researchers from Freeland India and Turtle Survival Alliance.
Disconcertingly, the study — published in the journal Biological Conservation in its March 2017 issue, finds that 14 species were being commercially harvested — nine more in 1993, when a similar study was conducted.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg, and the actual seizures could be much higher. Since there is no centralised data, we started keeping data from 2016. During this time, an additional 30,000 live individuals were seized in the country, a majority from the Gangetic plains,” said Shailendra Singh, Programme Director of Turtle Survival Alliance, and co-author of the study.
Researchers perused 223 reported seizures by authorities between 2011-15. Most of the seizures were in India, while the rest were from Bangladesh, Thailand and China. Of the amphibians seized, the turtles were established as having come from India.
Ganges — a red zone
Within India, the Gangetic Plains accounted for 46% of all seizures, with Lucknow and Kanpur being major hubs. Researchers said this was linked to tightening of the enforcement (including an active Special Task Force) in Uttar Pradesh and the Gangetic belt. There is a tradition of turtle poaching in this area given the diversity of TFT population along the river.
Apart from the Ganga and its tributaries, TFTs have been poached in rivers of the Western Ghats and, in smaller numbers, in the Eastern Ghats. The cities of Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata have seen large-scale seizures, suggesting accumulation before export, the researchers said.
While domestic consumption of turtle meat in West Bengal and Bangladesh continues, it is the international export to south-east Asian countries and China that rake in profits for smugglers.
“The species are poached by fishermen in streams, ponds and rivers. Very rarely are the traded species bred — they are mostly taken from the wild. It reaches middlemen who have strong networks to smuggle them across international borders. Turtles and tortoises are taken in trucks, buses and trains towards Bangladesh or through airports to south-east Asia,” said Uttara Mendiratta, who along with colleague Vallari Sheel from Freeland India, authored the report.
While enforcement has become stricter, the ease of transporting thousands of turtle hatchlings in bags has led the trade to continue unhindered. Earlier this year, 6,430 endangered turtles were found stuffed in large bags at Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.
On the persistence of the trade and expanding list of species being poached, Ms Mendiratta says, “In the meat markets in Bangladesh, there is indiscriminate poaching now as long as the turtles caught can be consumed. In the pet trade of SE Asia and China, there is an increasing diversity of species that is being sold from India. Before, it was primarily Star Tortoises. But now, the numbers of species such as Spotted Pond Turtle are on the rise.”
Turtles form an important part of the riverine system, acting as scavengers in cleaning up water bodies and generally being indicators of river health.
Ironically, the National Mission for Clean Ganga envisages breeding and release of turtles to clean wetlands, even as poaching and trade continues across the Gangetic belt.
“We need a comprehensive national conservation plan for these animals, says Mr. Singh.