The battle to bring freshwater turtles back from the brink

Conservationists and government departments are fighting against all odds to prevent the smuggling of turtles within and outside the country; the challenge is not just to prevent the illegal trade of turtles, some of which are endangered, as pets and for meat but also to rehabilitate those recovered from anti-trafficking operations

Updated - December 02, 2022 11:39 am IST

Published - December 02, 2022 10:01 am IST - Kolkata

Red-crowned roofed turtle

Red-crowned roofed turtle | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

On November 27, West Bengal Police seized 270 kg of turtle calipee (a gelatinous layer found in the lower shells of turtles, believed to be used in traditional Chinese medicine) in Malda district. The consignment was meant to be smuggled to Bangladesh.

Ten days earlier, Uttar Pradesh Forest Department officials recovered a total of 789 Indian flapshell turtles and softshell turtles near Amethi.

Another large consignment of 143 live turtles, meant to be smuggled to Bangladesh, was recovered by the Border Security Force (BSF) in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district in January this year.

These incidents of turtle smuggling are among the many reported across various States by international trafficking networks, which have kept law enforcement agencies on their toes for the past several years. Experts say the consignments intercepted by law enforcement agencies may be just a fraction of the actual volume of illegal trade. The demand for freshwater turtles and their body parts sees a spike every year during winter when it is easier to transport animals for extended periods.

In a move to curb turtle trafficking, earlier this month, the Conference of the Parties (COP) adopted India’s proposal to transfer two species of freshwater turtles found in the country — the red-crowned roofed turtle (Batagur kachuga) and the Leith’s Softshell Turtle (Nilssonia leithii) — to Appendix I (which lists the most endangered species that need the highest level of protection) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES).

Conservation experts and law enforcement agencies have welcomed CITES (an international treaty to ensure that trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival) upgrade of the two species at a time when illegal trade is threatening their natural habitats.

An anticipatory step

Shailendra Singh, programme director, Turtle Survival Alliance-India (TSA), described the CITES upgrade of the Nilssonia leithii as an “anticipatory” step. He said it is noteworthy that the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) mooted the proposal, which the COP adopted. The change in the status of the red-crowned roofed turtle, he added, would help save their population in the Chambal region. Mr. Singh also said that the conservation of freshwater turtles and tortoises is a long journey where a few milestones have been achieved. Still, a continuous vigil is needed in the coming years.

Experts in the field, such as Mr. Singh, point at a 2019 study by TRAFFIC India (an NGO working on the issue of trade of wild animals and plants) titled ‘Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles Under Siege’ to help non-experts comprehend the magnitude of the illegal trade in a decade.

Turtles rescued in Varanasi

Turtles rescued in Varanasi | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

According to the study, at least 1,11,310 tortoises and freshwater turtles were trafficked from September 2009 to September 2019. In other words, more than 11,000 specimens were introduced annually into the illegal trade in those 10 years.

“These slow-moving, tough animals, which have successfully adapted to various evolutionary processes and have survived cycles of mass extinctions, are today finding it difficult to survive because they’re being illegally traded as pets, for food, or to prepare medicines. India is reported to be one of the world’s major sources and consumers of turtles and tortoises,” stated the report.

India has 29 species of freshwater turtles (24) and tortoises (5). The main difference between the two is that turtles are primarily aquatic whereas tortoises are terrestrial and spend more time on land. More than half of the turtle species are threatened and 11 are protected under Schedule I of The Wildlife Protection Act, enjoying the same protection as tigers.

The TRAFFIC India report stated that “an unknown proportion of illegal wildlife trade presumably goes undetected”. Mr. Singh said that the illegal trade could be several times higher than what is reported and law enforcement agencies intercept only a fraction of it. Referring to CITES upgrade of the Nilssonia leithii, Mr. Singh said four turtle species of the genus of Nilssonia and N. leithii are endemic to India.

“All the species of the genus Nilssonia are much sought-after. The calipee is also in demand in the international market. Nilssonia leithii is a rare and endemic species. The conservation community’s view has been that if the calipee of Nilssonia leithii starts being traded in international markets, it would pose a serious threat to the species since it is difficult to distinguish between the calipee of different species,” he said.

Anti-trafficking operations

For the red-crowned roofed turtle, found only within the National Chambal Gharial Wildlife Sanctuary (NCGWS) spread across Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, threats have been mounting over the past few decades. The species recently made it to the list of the 25 most threatened freshwater turtles in the world, along with northern river terrapin (Batagur baska) which is left only in the Sundarbans.

Turtles are smuggled primarily for three reasons — for their meat (mainly within the country), as pets (within and outside India) and to extract their calipee.

“There is demand for the calipee, to meet which a supply system is already in place. Right now, efforts by forest departments and the WCCB (Wildlife Crime Control Bureau) are keeping the illegal trade in check,” said Agni Mitra, deputy director of the bureau’s eastern region.

Mr. Mitra added that people who live in the Barasat and Bongaon areas of West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district are responsible for more than 50% of the country’s consumption of turtles, where conservation awareness is not high. “However, the people there are slowly realising that they are doing something illegal,” Mr. Mitra said.

The senior official, who leads a dedicated team of experts and officers to keep a vigil on crime related to wildlife, said every year about 20 to 30 consignments of smuggled turtles are seized across south Bengal. While West Bengal’s porous borders serve as an easy transit route for the smugglers, those involved in trafficking turtles as pets seem to prefer the aerial route, Mr. Mitra added, pointing at instances of smuggled turtles being seized at airports across the country.

“The pet market for trade is serviced mostly by air now. We don’t have the intelligence [required to intercept such consignments],” Mr. Mitra said. The official said over the past few years the WCCB has been alerting law enforcement agencies, while training them, about the turtle calipee trade. “There was one major seizure in Uttar Pradesh in 2018, after which we started alerting officials. Since live animals are easily recognisable and the turtle calipee is not, the illegal trafficking network may be switching to the latter,” he added.

The WCCB, a statutory body with the mandate to prevent wildlife trafficking in the country, has carried out a pan-India crackdown on turtle smuggling. Between December 2016 and January 2017, it launched ‘Operation Save Kurma’ to prevent poaching, transportation and illegal trade of live turtles and tortoises. The operation resulted in the seizure of more than 15,912 live turtles and 55 arrests.

Two more such initiatives — ‘Operation Turtshield-I’ (December 2019 to January 2020) and ‘Operation Turtshield-II’ (December 2020 to February 2021) — were taken up to tackle the illegal trade of live turtles. The twin drives resulted in the recovery of 16,372 live/dead turtles, 45 kg of calipee and the arrest of 104 suspects.

The data about the pan-India operations were tabled in Parliament by the MOEFCC in response to a question raised by BJP MP G.M. Siddeshwar on November 29, 2021.

Challenges ahead

Experts point out that different species are trafficked to pet and meat markets. Species such as the Indian roofed turtle, black-spotted turtle (Geoclemys hamiltonii) and red-crowned roofed turtle as well as the Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans) are in huge demand in both the national and international illegal pet trade. The Indian star tortoise was upgraded to Appendix I of CITES in 2017.

The species that are harvested for meat are the Indian Flapshell turtle (Lissemys punctata), Indian softshell turtle (Nilssonia gangetica) and all the three other species of genus Nilssonia — Nilssonia leithiiNilssonia nigricans (black soft-shelled turtle) and Nilssonia hurum (Indian peacock softshell turtle) — besides the Indian narrow-headed softshell turtle (Chitra indica).

While West Bengal remains the hotspot for the illegal trade of turtles for meat, experts say that harvesting turtles for meat is also common in Tripura and Assam.

“The illegal trade of turtles for meat is different from the trade of turtles for pets. Different groups of people with different skills do the trafficking for each trade. While one group tries to get inside Bongaon and Basirhat [in Bengal], the other wants to smuggle turtles outside the country,” said Mr. Mitra.

The official added that the crackdown by the Forest Department of Madhya Pradesh has put several suspects, including international players involved in the illegal pet trade of turtles, behind bars. The Special Task Force (STF) of Madhya Pradesh Forest Department lodged a turtle smuggling case in Morena district in May 2017. “An elaborate network of smugglers and international handlers was busted. We arrested 35 persons across four States — M.P., U.P., West Bengal and Tamil Nadu — and six countries,” said Ritesh Sirothiya, the then STF chief.

Mr. Sirothiya, now associated with WCCB (Nothern Region), said 24 accused were Indians and the remaining suspects were from Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Malaysia and China, etc. “A red corner notice was issued against the accused in the case, whose investigation led us to foreign countries,” Mr. Sirothiya said, explaining how national and international networks operate the illegal turtle trade.

Success stories

Conservationists face the challenge of rehabilitating the animals rescued from the illegal trade back to their natural habitats. Organisations such as the Turtle Survival Alliance have assisted in the rehabilitation of over 30,000 rescued turtles over the past 10 years.

Mr. Singh, awarded the Behler Turtle Conservation Award in 2021 for helping to bring three critically endangered turtle conservation species back from the brink of extinction, especially cherishes his work on one of those three species — northern river terrapin.

In 2008, when the species was believed to have disappeared from the wild, a joint exploration of swamps, mangroves and tidal creeks by the TSA and Sundarban Tiger Reserve located a cohort of eight males, three females and one juvenile at a pond at Sajnekhali Interpretation Centre in the Sundarbans.

After nearly 14 years, the efforts to increase the number of the northern river terrapin, categorised as ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, are paying off. Mr. Singh and his colleagues at the TSA were able to increase the number of this species to 12 adults and nearly 400 juveniles.

The TSA, along with the Forest Departments of U.P. and M.P., has also been credited for conserving critically endangered red-crowned roofed turtle in the Chambal landscape, where nests of the species have been protected across these two States. Attempts have also been made to conserve the critically endangered black softshell turtle in its natural habitat — temple ponds of Assam.

Merwyn Fernandes, project coordinator TRAFFIC India, said the situation, as far as freshwater turtle conservation in India is concerned, is improving but more needs to be done.

“There is also a lot of collaboration between the law enforcement agencies because the jurisdiction of one agency is limited, whereas the crime is committed across States,” he said. Mr. Fernandes also highlighted the role of local communities in protecting these species. For instance, the Assam Biodiversity Board has declared the Hajong tortoise lake as a biodiversity heritage site. The lake, spread over 526 hectares, is situated in the Langtang Mupa reserved forest of the Dima Hasao district and is home to several threatened freshwater turtle species.

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