- India’s proposal for higher protection for two freshwater turtles was accepted at the CITES conference.
- Turtles such as the red-crowned roofed and Leith softshell turtles are natural scavengers in the marine ecosystem, dispersing seeds of aquatic plants and recycling organic matter.
- Illegal trafficking, on the rise, needs to be curbed to save the two turtles, say experts.
India has scored a notable success in mobilising international support for the conservation of two of its endangered freshwater turtles, but there is a huge ground work ahead to translate the policy into action and save these valuable members of the ecosystem from vanishing.
At a recently-concluded 19th meeting of the conference of the parties (CoP19) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) at Panama City, India’s proposal to regulate trade in Leith’s softshell turtle (Nilssonia leithi) by shifting its listing to the highest category – threatened with extinction and necessitating regulation of trade – was accepted.
CITES is the global treaty that regulates international trade in nearly 40,000 species of wild plants and animals, including timber and marine species which are included in its three appendices. The first appendix deals with species that are threatened with extinction, and trade is only permitted in exceptional circumstances, for example, for scientific research. The second appendix includes species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but whose trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilisation detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild; while the third appendix has species that are protected by national legislation in at least one country which has asked the CITES countries for assistance in controlling the trade.
At the Panama meeting, India suggested transferring Leith’s softshell turtle (Nilssonia leithi) from Appendix II to Appendix I, which was agreed upon. The country’s proposal for induction of freshwater red-crowned roofed turtle (Batagur kachuga), too “earned wide support” of the participating countries, and was “widely appreciated and well accepted” when introduced, the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) says.
The ministry says CITES “lauded and recorded” India’s initiatives in the area of conservation of tortoises and freshwater turtles and its efforts to combat wildlife crime and illegal trade of turtles in the country. CITES documents also specifically mention the country’s Wildlife Crime Control Bureau’s success in nabbing many criminals involved in poaching and illegal trade of freshwater turtles and making substantial seizures.
At CITES CoP 19, which ended on 25 November 2022, India highlighted that many of the species of turtles and freshwater tortoises which are recognised as ‘critically endangered,’ ‘endangered,’ ‘vulnerable,’ or ‘near threatened’ are already included in India’s Wildlife Protection Act 1972, which was amended and passed by the country’s parliament, and given a high degree of protection. India urged CITES to list many such species in CITES Appendix II, too, to enhance their protection and prevent their illegal international trafficking.
But the mere shifting of species from one list or level of their endangered status to another in itself does not guarantee their effective conservation, points out Kartik Shanker, professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Banglore; and founder trustee of the non-profit Dakshin Foundation that works on conservation.
Indian conservationists also say that some of the listings in the WLPA are often not based on a well-defined process or scientific data available in India. This leads to some bizarre clubbing together of animals under various schedules of the WLPA – the endangered great Indian bustard with the peafowl, which is seen as a nuisance by farmers.
It also makes it difficult for conservation scientists to access habitats of endangered species to conduct research that can inform conservation measures, they say.
Read more: Bringing freshwater turtles out of their shells and into the spotlight
Natural scavengers, climate change indicators
Turtles such as the red-crowned roofed and Leith’s softshell turtles are natural scavengers in the marine ecosystem, helping disperse seeds of aquatic plants and recycle organic matter, explains Shailendra Singh, director of Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), based in Lucknow. Since the gender of turtles often depends on the environment and the incubation temperature, they are a good indicator of climate change and the overall health of an aquatic system, he says.
In India, the red-crowned roofed turtle, which was common across the Gangetic plain only 50 years back, is now limited to the Chambal river, says Singh. “We fear that we have less than 500 adults surviving and we can’t afford to keep losing this species to international pet trade, particularly the males, which have a vibrant colour.”
Similarly, the entire Nilssonia genus is under threat due to its illegal harvesting for food and traditional Chinese medicine, says Singh. “Since N. leithii is endemic to certain pockets of peninsular India and lots of caliper (outer cartilaginous rim) of this genus being traded illegally, we have to uplist this species from any such threats in future.”
Leith’s softshell turtle too is endemic to peninsular India, with less than 10 specimens sighted last year, primarily in Maharashtra. “TSA-sponsored surveys confirmed the illegal harvesting of this species from the Cauvery river basin, but since the species is really so rare, we believe that this contributes less than 10 percent to the total caliper trade, while the rest comes from other two species of the same genus,” says Singh. However, calipers are not easily distinguishable.
Read more: [Explainer] Why is India a major hub for wildlife trafficking?
The loss of these two turtles is indicative of the general decline in turtles in India, with 17 of 29 species under threat due to illegal harvesting and habitat degradation.
Newer species, hitherto not trafficked, are appearing in the illegal trade market. The absence of a species in illegal trade does not always mean that it is not sought after, Singh says. “Maybe it is rarer or under the highest protection.”
Similarly, there are more enforcement seizures which may indicate the increased capacity of India’s authorities and vigilance, he adds.
Generally, most of the freshwater turtles go via West Bengal to Bangladesh before being exported to Southeast Asian countries. Some turtles, such as flap shell and soft shell turtles, are consumed in West Bengal, Tripura and Bangladesh. “In my personal opinion, pet trade in the country increased and definitely social media emerged as a treat contributing to that,” says Singh.
Some, like the red-crowned roofed turtle, especially the males and juveniles, are transported and traded alive, while in the case of others, such as the Leith softshell turtle, the outer cartilaginous rim and dried shell are traded.
Singh suggests that increased vigilance during winters, capacity building of local enforcement agencies to patrol key areas, along with stricter enforcement along the entry points and borders could help curb illegal trade. He also suggests documentation of key turtle habitats and patrolling the area.
Banner image: Red-crowned roofed turtles in the Chambal river in Rajasthan. The species, which was common across the Gangetic plain only 50 years back, is now limited to the Chambal river. As per estimates, only 500 adults remain as of today. Photo by Kandukuru Nagarjun/Wikimedia Commons.