LAHORE - WWF-Pakistan celebrated Turtle Day to increase knowledge of freshwater and marine turtles among people and encourage human action to help them survive.

In Pakistan, there are two species of land tortoises, five species of marine turtles and eight species of freshwater turtles. Unfortunately, all of them face multiple threats due to anthropogenic activities.

Freshwater turtles are found in Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They are found along the entire Indus River system and its tributaries, canals, streams, ponds and even rice fields.

Over the past few years, trafficking of freshwater turtles had been taking place in an organised manner, as lucrative profits are involved. Freshwater turtles, especially black-spotted turtles, are subjected to pet trade, hence smuggled alive to western countries, i.e. the UK and USA. In the international market, people are willing to pay as much as $250 apiece.

Demand for turtle meat in East Asian countries is another threat as turtle parts are illegally exported through Chinese border.

Turtle body parts are also used in traditional Chinese medicines thus affecting their population in Pakistan.

Due to these reasons, five out of eight species of freshwater turtles are either endangered or vulnerable as classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

WWF-Pakistan lobbied with the governments of Punjab and KPK to enlist the species as protected. The turtles were declared a protected species in 2007 under the Punjab and KPK Wildlife Protection Acts.

“In Sindh, legislations in the wildlife act were made on September 19, 2014, after which the freshwater turtle species was finally declared a protected species,” said Uzma Noureen, Coordinator Indus River Dolphin Conservation Project who is also a member of the Tortoises and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

She added the Sindh government would now fine any smuggler Rs12,000 for each live turtle and Rs20,000 for each dead species for attempted illegal trafficking. Previously, the fine was only Rs50,000 for the entire consignment, she said.

According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), it is illegal to trade endangered species, thus, any live animal recovered is returned to its country of origin. One of the great successes in turtle conservation includes repatriation of 200 black-spotted turtles from China by WWF-Pakistan and Sindh Wildlife Department (SWD).

In a recent move, WWF-Pakistan and the Punjab Wildlife Department (PWD) released 171 black spotted turtles out of 504 which were confiscated earlier by the PWD at Allama Iqbal International Airport, Lahore.

Turtles acquire great ecological importance as they act as natural recyclers by purifying water, as they feed upon dead organic matter and diseased fish. Moreover, they help to maintain a healthy stock of fish population by fighting against algae and other harmful matter. Turtles are also known as living fossils for having survived on this planet for almost 350 million years and successfully adapting to almost every environmental change.

World Turtle Day aims to raise awareness for turtle conservation and demands immediate attention before the species is further endangered.