India's Turtles Are Dying, But We Can Help Save Them

22/05/2016 9:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST


Photo Credit: Sandeep Gangadharan via Wikimedia Commons

The turtle's story is one that is almost as old as time. For more than 220 million years, these reptiles journeyed across high seas and rode many a river's currents and survived. Alas, the hand of man seeks to cut short that script. Turtles have existed since the beginning of the age of dinosaurs; sadly, they are now in grave danger. We cannot afford to ignore the continuing disappearance of these fascinating reptiles. Turtles are omnivorous and they assist in keeping our waters clean. These gardeners of our waters feed on algae, sea grass and other vegetation, thus enabling the healthy growth of flora, which in turn, form breeding grounds for a host of other organisms.

As... nets remain underwater for long periods, trapped turtles are unable to resurface to breathe and hence die from exhaustion and drowning.

India is fortunate to have a rich diversity of turtles. Five of the seven known species of marine turtles live in the warm, temperate waters of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. They are the olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), green (Chelonia mydas), leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and loggerhead (Caretta caretta) turtles. All except the loggerhead turtle are known to nest on India's coastline. Meanwhile, 28 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises are also found here. Despite this diversity, turtle populations are dwindling.

Gill nets and trawl nets rake up a sizeable number of marine turtle deaths. As these nets remain underwater for long periods, trapped turtles are unable to resurface to breathe and hence die from exhaustion and drowning. In The Empty Ocean, Richard Ellis writes that since 1996, more than 50,000 olive ridleys have washed up dead along the coast of Orissa. Many turtle carcasses that wash ashore bear injury marks; some are even dismembered. These fatal wounds are often caused by contact with the high-speed propellers of shipping vessels, resulting in a slow, painful death from bleeding and exhaustion. In addition, eggs and hatchlings face the threat of depredation from crows, dogs and other feral animals. Humans also consume the turtles and their eggs.


Dead on a beach; Photo Credit: Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN)

Habitat modification and loss is another major threat to marine turtles. During the breeding season, turtles mate and feed in waters near the shore, and later, the females descend upon the beach to lay their eggs. Sand mining, beach pollution and coastline construction impact marine turtle populations, as does artificial lighting. Hatchlings have a natural tendency to move towards the light. It is thought that on virgin beaches, they orient themselves towards the ocean by moving towards sunlight or the reflection of the moon and stars on the water. However, in areas with a heavy human presence, hatchlings and adults tend to move towards the direction of the artificial coastal lights. This puts them in danger of dehydration, exhaustion and predation. On busy coastal roads, they even become roadkill.


Photo Credit: APOWA/HIS

Habitat loss and degradation are other factors harming freshwater turtles. These little animals who often climb out of the water onto logs or rocks to bask in the warm sun are additionally exploited for the pet trade as well as for their meat, shells and oil to be used as ingredients in traditional systems of medicine (both within and outside India). Although the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, lists all species of turtles under Schedules 1-4, making their capture, possession and trade illegal, a large number of soft shell turtles in India are smuggled to fulfil the demand for 'calipee' (i.e. the dried cartilaginous layer in the turtle's lower shell) that is used in traditional Chinese medicine. It is not, however, the Chinese alone that consume turtle meat. In their study on freshwater turtles in Kerala, K. Krishnakumar, Rajeev Raghavan and Benno Pereira note they are hunted for their meat, which is then sold as a delicacy in toddy shops.

Even the smallest of initiatives -- such as raising awareness about turtle trade, avoiding the buying of turtles as pets and discouraging others from doing so -- can make a difference.

Turtles caught in other parts of India are usually transported for meat which is considered a delicacy in West Bengal, considered to be a trade hub of turtles. They are also smuggled out of Orissa, as the Mahanadi, Brahmani and Baitarani river systems here serve as turtle habitats. Biswajit Mohanty, former member of the National Board of Wildlife, says, "Three months ago, there was a seizure of five turtles of the species Chitra indica from Aitalanga village which is 5km from Cuttack city in Orissa." Mohanty estimates that "at least 500 to 1,000 large turtles like C.indica, Nilssonia hurum and N. gangeticus are smuggled out on a yearly basis. Smaller ones like L. punctata, which are common, are taken in large numbers now- -- around 30,000 to 40,000 annually."


Photo Credit: APOWA/HIS

Although the future of turtles may be jeopardized, concentrated efforts at conservation, including enforcement of anti-poaching laws and fishing regulations in tandem with community outreach and alternate livelihood programmes, are some of the ways that can help turn the tide in the turtle's favour. An effective example is the work undertaken by us at Humane Society International/India in Gahirmatha, Orissa, that plays host to the annual mass nesting of olive ridleys. In collaboration with our local partner NGO, Action for the Protection of Wild Animals, HSI/India runs a dedicated olive ridley conservation programme. It includes beach patrolling, beach clean-ups, protection of eggs in hatcheries as well as community awareness initiatives that aim to galvanize the local populace to actively participate in turtle conservation. Conservation strategies for freshwater turtles must focus on enforcement of the Wild Life (Protection) Act. Even the smallest of initiatives -- such as raising awareness about turtle trade, avoiding the buying of turtles as pets and discouraging others from doing so -- can make a difference.

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