In what’s been described as the largest wildlife seizure of its kind in India’s history, authorities have rescued more than 6,000 freshwater turtles caught by poachers who planned to sell the meat and bones of the animals in various Southeast Asian countries.
The 6,430 Indian flapshell turtles (Lissemys punctata) – weighing 4.4 tons collectively – were found stuffed into 140 jute bags and loaded on a truck that would have transported them from the state of Uttar Pradesh in the northeast of the country to the eastern Indian city of Kolkata.
From there, the illegal cargo would have been shipped to markets in Bangladesh, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia, where the flapshell turtle’s meat is prized for its purported aphrodisiacal powers and its powdered bones are used in folk remedies and soups.
From The Star Online:
“Rachna Tiwari of the US-based Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) said smugglers can earn up to 1,000 rupees ($15) per flapshell turtle, while a bigger softshell — whose meat is considered a delicacy — is sold for up to 8,000 rupees.”
The turtles’ liberation from the poachers was the work of the Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force, a team charged with the enforcement of wildlife laws within the state. Arvind Chaturvedi, head of the special task force, told AFP: “Wildlife authorities confirmed that this is the largest haul in the country’s wildlife history, both in terms of number and weight — 4.4 tonnes.”
Chaturvedi also said that the “kingpin” of the interstate turtle smuggling gang, Raj Bahadur Singh, was arrested during the raid that took place in the town of Gauriganj, located in the Amethi district of Uttar Pradesh.
Several members of the gang are yet to be arrested, authorities said.
Indian flapshell turtles are not endangered or particularly rare, but they are protected under the Indian Wildlife Act passed in 1972. And despite efforts to raise awareness and increase enforcement of anti-poaching laws, they and other turtle species – some of which are endangered – are being smuggled out of Uttar Pradesh at an alarming rate.
From Earth Touch News:
“According to the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), trade is brisk: Indian flapshells can sell for up to 1,000 rupees (approximately $15) per animal. And the flapshells aren’t the only coveted species. The Indian softshell turtle (Nilssonia gangetica), whose meat is considered a delicacy, is also regularly poached, fetching prices of up to 8,000 rupees (approximately $117).”
Like the flapshell, the Indian softshell turtle is a protected species and not yet on the endangered list – but for how long?
“Enforcement against poaching has improved, but the scale at which these protected turtles are being poached, who knows, they may also soon become endangered,” said Tiwari.
It is estimated that as many as 20,000 turtles are smuggled out of Uttar Pradesh every year. The state happens to be home to 14 of India’s 28 endangered turtle species.
The 6,430 rescued turtles are currently being housed in a “makeshift sanctuary” in the Turtle Survival Alliance’s local center.
Turtles and tortoises have been around for 220 million years, but for many species, the future looks grim.
According to a 2011 report published by the TSA, entitled, Turtles in Trouble: Top 25+ Endangered Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles, hunting, poaching and destruction of natural habitats will lead to the extinction of the world’s 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles within the next few decades – unless “concerted conservation efforts” are made.
To learn more about the plight of turtles and tortoises throughout the world – or perhaps to make a contribution to the cause – please visit the Turtle Survival Alliance website.