Creating new perspectives since 2009

Rare sea turtles face grave threat of poaching along Pakistan coast

October 3, 2023 at 5:00 pm

Baby green turtles reach the sea on a beach at Akyatan Wildlife Improvement Area, which hosts caretta carettas and green sea turtles, after hatching in Karatas district of Adana, Turkiye on August 15, 2023 [Eren Bozkurt – Anadolu Agency]

Unabated poaching of rare sea turtles along Pakistan’s coast is adding to the looming threat to the survival of the already endangered species.

Hundreds of small and big aquariums are openly buying and selling baby turtles across the southern port city of Karachi, the hub of this illegal trade.

Wildlife officials raided an aquarium last week on Burns Road, an old neighbourhood in Karachi’s southern district, and seized baby turtles that were on sale.

However, according to wildlife activists, there are scores of other aquariums, makeshift animal markets and vendors involved in the illegal trade across the metropolis.

“Sea turtles already face a host of dangers throughout their life, from predators to human activities like pollution, boat strikes, marine debris, and (reckless) fishing. Now the growing trend of poaching is adding to the myriad of threats,” Mahera Omar, a Karachi-based wildlife activist told Anadolu.

READ: In Pakistan, a switch in fishing methods saves thousands of dolphins

Sea turtles are creatures of the sea. That’s where they should be. That’s all the more reason to protect their coastal nesting habitats and do all that we can to clamp down on this menace

Turtles lay their eggs on beaches between October and February, which hatch in about 60 days. In Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial capital, their preferred nesting sites have been the two major beaches, Hawke’s Bay and Sandspit.

A particularly worrying side of the illegal trade is that a large number of baby turtles cannot survive in captivity.

That is because of the difference between freshwater and saltwater turtles, according to Naveed Soomro, a Karachi-based official of the International Union of Conservation (IUCN), a global environmental organisation.

“People, and even the poachers, do not know the difference. Marine turtles need those specific sea conditions, which you can’t have in aquariums,” Soomro told Anadolu.

As a result, he added, marine turtles survive only a week or so after being poached, while freshwater turtles have a much higher survival rate.

Ashfaq Ali Memon, head of the Marine Turtle Conservation Cell of the provincial wildlife department, endorsed Soomro’s view, saying the lack of awareness about the differences of the two species is a major contributor to the high mortality figures.

He, however, contended that authorities have taken “effective measures” against poaching, which has reduced it by a “huge extent” in recent years.

‘Egg poaching more prevalent’

The buyers of baby turtles range from common citizens for mere recreational purposes to unqualified medical practitioners who use their parts to prepare so-called aphrodisiac medicines.

Soomro said egg poaching is a more prevalent phenomenon compared to that of baby turtles, specifically because the eggs are considered an aphrodisiac and are widely used by quacks and unqualified health practitioners to make such medicines.

“Egg poaching has turned out to be more disastrous for this poor creature because of this false concept,” he said.

READ: About 3,600 nests of loggerhead turtles found in Turkiye Mediterranean province of Antalya

Memon contended that the poaching of sea turtles and their eggs is not taking place on a commercial scale.

He, however, acknowledged that the illegal trade of baby turtles and eggs is still reported from the sprawling coasts of the south-western Balochistan province.

“We have a very restricted area, about 5 miles, to protect this species in Karachi, and we are doing that effectively,” he said.

According to Memon, human activities are the main factor behind the dwindling population of the rare species, rather than poaching.

“Our staff meticulously collect the eggs and shift them to three hatcheries for the complete 60-day period,” he said, adding that the newborn turtles are then released into the sea.

Disappearing nesting grounds

Pakistan is fast losing its traditional nesting sites for sea turtles, posing another threat to the endangered species.

The South Asian country has lost 25-30 per cent of nesting grounds for turtles over the past decade due to increasing water pollution, waste dumping on beaches and reckless fishing, according to Adnan Hamid, a senior wildlife expert.

He said Sandspit and Hawke’s Bay beaches are among the 11 largest nesting sites for green turtles worldwide, but have largely been ruined because of the combination of destructive factors.

Memon, the wildlife department official, said unabated human intrusion, increasing pollution and the dumping of “all of Karachi’s garbage” into the Arabian Sea has affected some 70 per cent of all turtle habitats in the city.

The solid waste being found on beaches includes plastic bags and diapers, which are “killers” for the turtles, he said.

Until 2000, there were only a few huts along the 5-mile coastal stretch, the main nesting ground for sea turtles, but they now number in the hundreds.

VIEW: Aquatic turtles struggle to survive severe drought in Tunisia

Until the late 1990s, Memon said, all five saltwater turtle species – olive ridley, green turtle, leatherback, loggerhead and hawksbill – were found nesting on Pakistan’s beaches.

Today, however, we only have green turtles here because of the decline in the nesting grounds, he added.

Varying population figures

Though wildlife experts agree that increased human activities on beaches pose a potential threat to marine turtles, they differ on whether their population has increased or decreased.

According to Memon, there has been a “little” increase in their numbers over the past years due to “better protection” of nesting grounds.

“Green turtles need soft sand to lay their eggs. We have taken effective measures to protect the soft sand areas of the two beaches, resulting in more laying and collection of eggs,” he maintained.

On the contrary, he added, the nesting habitats of olive ridley turtles, which are relatively smaller in size compared to green turtles, have been destroyed due to construction activities on hard sand, which is a requirement for that species.

Soomro, the IUCN official, said the number of green turtles has decreased in recent years but “not to a great extent”.

In contrast, Muhammad Moazzam Khan, technical adviser for marine fisheries at the Karachi office of the WWF-Pakistan, believes the numbers have grown.

According to him, there has been a 5 per cent increase in the population of green turtles over the past 10 years.

Khan said the offshore population of olive ridley turtles is also on the rise, while there is no substantial data for the remaining three species.

Sea turtles play a vital role in the marine ecosystem. Their presence enables nutrient cycling, habitat modification and biodiversity regulation

said Omar, the wildlife activist.

“Their removal triggers a trophic cascade that affects the survival of the other species in their environment. So, we should let the wild remain in the wild, for our own future depends on these ecosystems.”

READ: Litter forms obstacles for baby turtles heading to sea

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.