Article by Gokul G. K.
On 31 January 2021, a team of Railway Protection Force (RPF) seized three bags containing 100 alive Indian flapshell turtles from platform No. 3 of Koderma Railway Station in Koderma district of Jharkhand. This turtle is a protected species under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
Two weeks later, on 13 February, at least 12 flapshell turtles were found dead in Sarsai Nawar Wetland of Etawah district.
These consecutive incidents might come as a shocker to many readers, but this has been the case in India for quite a long time.
According to a study conducted by TRAFFIC, a wildlife-trade monitoring network, a minimum of 1,11,310 tortoises and freshwater turtles entered illegal wildlife trade in a 10-year period from September 2009 to September 2019. The report shows that every year, 11,000 of these reptiles were smuggled. It also claims that a portion of the illegal wildlife trade goes unreported or undetected, so the numbers might be even higher.
India has a total of 24 species of freshwater turtles. Interestingly, as Hindustan Times reported, these include two of the world’s 25 most threatened freshwater turtle species – the northern river terrapin (Batagur baska) found in the Sundarbans, West Bengal, and the red-crowned roof turtle (Batagur kachuga), found only within the riverine National Chambal Gharial Wildlife Sanctuary (NCGWS) in Madhya Pradesh.
Indian flapshell turtle. Credit: The Hindu
In terms of the total number of animals confiscated, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal emerged as the two major hotspots in the analysis, accounting for more than 60% of all recorded seizures from the country.
Indian softshell turtle. Credit: Hindustan Times
The study found 14 Indian species of tortoises and freshwater turtles being traded, of which Indian star tortoise accounted for 49% of the total identifiable individuals seized, followed by Indian softshell turtle (26%), Indian flapshell turtle (15%), and black-spotted or spotted pond turtle (9%).
Indian star tortoise. Credit: Reptiles Magazine
As reported by Mongabay, the turtles are sourced from the Indo-Gangetic plains – mainly from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand and West Bengal; and Odisha and Andhra Pradesh in the Mahanadi basin. The scale of poaching is huge: in just one seizure, over 6,400 softshell turtles – destined for the food markets of Kolkata – were intercepted in Uttar Pradesh in January 2017.
“West Bengal, in particular, is a major hub, where turtle meat is a delicacy, and in high demand more so during the festive season. It’s available–on and off the counter—in fish markets across Kolkata, Howrah and Purulia. Informed sources, who wish to remain anonymous, confide that about 150 kilograms of turtle meat is sold daily in haats and fish markets across the east and west Midnapore districts. Other such markets, where turtle meat is reported to be available are Patna, Munger and Muzaffarpur in Bihar; Bokaro, Jamshedpur, Ranchi and Dhanbad in Jharkhand; Gorakhpur, Mughalsarai-and Varanasi—also home to the country’s only turtle sanctuary—in Uttar Pradesh,” reported Mongabay.
Spotted pond turtle. Credit: Reptiles Magazine
Freshwater turtles are an important part of the ecosystem. By feeding on algal bloom and scavenging on dead matter, these turtles keep our freshwater sources clean. But these majestic creatures, too, are threatened by illegal trade and poaching.
Apart from freshwater turtles, marine turtles also face direct and indirect threats along the 8,000 km long coast of India. Five species of sea turtles are known to inhabit Indian coastal waters and islands – olive ridley sea turtle, green sea turtle, hawksbill sea turtle, loggerhead sea turtle and leatherback sea turtle.
Green sea turtle. Credit: The National Wildlife Federation
In addition to direct threats like accidental drowning, sea turtles face myriads of indirect threats such as loss of habitat and prey. Pollution and construction along the coast are the major reasons for this. Kartik Shankar, Naveen Namboothri and B. C. Choudhury of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, in their study titled, Marine turtles in India: research and conservation reveal five major threats to the habitat of marine turtles and they are as follows:
Olive ridley sea turtle. Credit: The National Wildlife Federation
Threats to habitat
Construction and mining: Construction along the coast can not only become physical obstacles for turtles but can cause large-scale degradation of their nesting habitats. Sand mining on the beaches can also significantly affect turtle habitats.
Beach armouring: The construction of artificial hard beach armouring options such as sea walls, rock revetments, sandbags, groins, and jetties could affect turtles by preventing females from reaching good nesting grounds. Coastal armouring is done to prevent shoreline retreat. ‘They also trap or delay hatchlings and females on the journey back to the sea, increasing their exposure to predators.’
Beach nourishment: Attempts to replace sand lost to coastal erosion can cause problems for sea-turtle nesting, as the new sand might be unfavourable for nesting. This process can also destroy the eggs by burying them too deep into the sand.
Exotic vegetation: Introduced plants can displace natural vegetation and proliferate on beaches making conditions unfavourable for nesting.
Contamination and pollution: Contaminants such as plastic and other debris can make beaches hostile for nesting. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report (2018-19) puts the total annual plastic waste generation in India at a humongous 3.3 million metric tonnes per year, with a major chunk discarded in beaches.
Climate change and global warming are also strong threats to turtles. According to the above-mentioned study, ‘the offspring sex in marine turtles is determined by temperature experienced during the incubation period. The sex ratio of hatchlings is strongly influenced even by temperature changes as minor as 1° C.’
From these data and reports available to us, it is clear that these chelonian reptiles are facing serious threats – both natural and anthropogenic. An all-encompassing conservation plan is critical to keep the turtle population healthy.