In October 2019, wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC released a report which claimed that over the past decade since September 2009, at least more than 1 lakh freshwater turtles and tortoises were poached in illegal trade. This shocking number shows that every year, 11,000 of these reptiles were smuggled. The report also went on to claim that a portion of the illegal trade goes unreported or undetected; so the numbers might be even higher.
Prof. B.C. Choudhury, principal investigator of aquatic projects at Wildlife Trust of India, said in an email interview, “Poaching of freshwater turtles has increased considerably in the Gangetic river basin and the Terai region of India. The illegal trade in star tortoise continues to thrive despite enhanced surveillance by enforcement agencies.”
Indian Roof turtle. Photo courtesy: TSA - Rishika Dubla
Where does most poaching occur? Prof. Choudhury said, “The foothills of the Himalayas with its numerous wetlands, the Gangetic flood plains, certain southern tributaries of the Ganges are major regions of turtle poaching in the country as also the tri-junction of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for the illegal trade in star tortoise.”
TRAFFIC also revealed that certain cases are not reported due to the lack of ability to identify the reptiles involved.
This is where the expertise of Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), a field project of Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)-India, comes into play. TSA uses a two-process approach to prevent extinction and ensure improvement of the population of endangered species. A reported case occurred in October when three men were discovered smuggling eighty endangered turtles in Agra’s Fatehabad, Uttar Pradesh. The operation was conducted by Fatehabad police officials and the forest department. The turtles were allegedly being taken to New Delhi.
While talking about this case, Dr. Shailendra Singh, the director of TSA India, said, “We generally get calls from the forest department about confiscated turtles. In this case also, the Agra divisional forest officer contacted us asking for primary care and proper rehabilitation of 80 reptiles. We immediately rushed Sreeparna Dutta, our researcher, to help out. We found that the turtles primarily belonged to four species including the Roofed Turtle, Three -striped Roofed Turtle, Crowned River turtle, and flapshell turtles.”
Responsible for more than 160 conservation, research and education projects across India, Dr. Singh leads WCS’s India Turtle Conservation Program.
“The people from whom the turtles were confiscated claimed they caught the reptiles from the Yamuna and Chambal rivers, which we later found out was true. We examined the turtles and, apart from eight Three striped Roofed turtles, released the rest after three days into the Yamuna river itself. The eight turtles, which are critically endangered, were adult males and we translocated them to our center in Chambal. There, we examined their health using standard protocols and realized they were kept in confinement for at least 2-3 months. The turtles were in a bad condition and were dehydrated. Due to this, we quarantined them for two months and released them after their condition had stabilized.”
The turtles quarantined at TSA’s Chambal center
When asked what the procedure to be followed was after TSA got a call from forest officials about turtles found in such conditions, Dr. Singh elaborated, “Immediately after we are informed of such turtles, we go to the point of seizure, identify the species and analyse their condition. We provide the turtles with primary treatment and if required, transport them back to our rehabilitation center. Apart from this, we also help the officials with filing preliminary offence reports, etc. If the turtles are in a bad condition, we quarantine them till they are stabilized. The standard period is anything from 30 to 90 days.”
TSA also plays a major role in ensuring there is a rise in population among the endangered turtles and creates awareness among the people.
“In India, we are trying to focus on all endangered species of turtles. Out of the 29 species, 17 are endangered, and at least 15 species are extensively sought after for illegal trade. Therefore, we are trying to do field level conservation programs in which some focus on recovery since the turtle population is so low, while others focus on awareness workshops to minimize threats to the turtle population. Conservative breeding, radio telemetry and release are our areas of focus, which helps us learn how quickly we can recover their population. We also try and help the forest department to rescue them from illegal trade and help rehabilitate them,” said Dr. Singh.
Professor Chaudhury, when asked how an individual can help save the population of turtles, Prof. Chaudhury said, “A person not involved with any organisation can inform people that turtle meat and soup actually do not cure any disease nor does keeping turtles in some corner of the house bring enormous wealth as promoted by feng shui and such other myths. Also, whenever and wherever one encounters trade in turtles, make enforcement agencies aware of such locations. And enlighten young school students about the myths associated with turtles so that they can inform their parents and other elders regarding such false beliefs.”
By Arathi M