The turtle’s shell is a wondrous thing, allowing the shy reptile a place of refuge when it detects the presence of a predator. However, even this fortress designed by nature isn’t enough to protect these creatures from certain “intelligent” mammals with opposable thumbs, who prey on them for profit and — at times — a taste of its soft flesh.
These days, a joint team of the special task force and the forest department has been assigned to monitor the activities of local fishermen in the swamps of Kali river in the Mainpuri-Etah district. Their objective is to thwart the operations of the Kanjad gang, which prowls the Isan and Arind basin area to catch turtles. The poachers, led by 45-year-old Dharmendra Kanjad, reportedly pack the shelled reptiles in gunny bags that are then couriered to Kolkata via Kanpur. Forest department officers say the Kanjad gang has smuggled over 1,000 turtles this year.
The Kanjad gang is the not the only one targeting the endangered creatures; there are many others who prowl turtle habitats in the Ganga, Yamuna, Chambal, Ghaghra, Sharda, Ken, Betwa and Rapti river basins too. Environmentalist VK Joshi says turtles, which are an important part of the ecological system, keep rivers clean. Killing or whisking them away, therefore, is bound to have an adverse impact on the ecology.
As many as 20,000 turtles are smuggled from UP every year, leading to a precipitous decline in its population. The indiscriminate hunting and smuggling of the creatures has come to a head in recent times, forcing the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau to issue an alert.
Nailing the poachers
Tilotama Verma, additional director of the bureau, recently visited Lucknow and held a meeting with director general of police Javeed Ahmed to discuss the spurt in turtle smuggling from Uttar Pradesh to Southeast Asia. He also made a presentation titled ‘Wildlife crimes: National and international ramifications’ during police week to create awareness on wildlife crime.
The state police have decided to set up a wildlife crime control unit to check turtle smuggling. However, director general of police Javeed Ahmed told HT that recent turtle hauls and arrest of agents have failed to deter smugglers. “We will have to move beyond national borders and coordinate with international agencies to check the crime,” he said.
Additional superintendent of police (special task force) Arvind Kumar Chaturvedi, who heads the wildlife crime control unit, said the focus will be on turtle poachers. “We have set a target of zero turtle poaching in the state,” he added.
The turtle smuggling network in the country extends from UP to Bihar, West Bengal and Assam. Kolkata has emerged as the main transit point for such smugglers, with turtles being illegally shipped to Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Thailand, Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian countries from its shores. There is a huge demand for Indian turtles in the international market for three reasons — meat, its feng shui connection, and production of aphrodisiacs.
According to officials, the turtle smugglers’ network comprises local fishermen who trap turtles, ‘collectors’ who buy the reptiles from them, couriers who transport them to transit points, and traders who ship the consignments to Southeast Asian countries.
- The turtle smugglers’ network comprises local fishermen who trap turtles, ‘collectors’ who buy the reptiles from them, couriers who transport them to transit points, and traders who ship the consignments to Southeast Asian countries
- Kolkata has emerged as the main transit point for such smugglers, with turtles being illegally shipped to Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Thailand, Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian countries from its shores
Though the special task force (STF) nabbed some of the poachers and busted the courier operation, the kingpin remains at large. “We have information that the traders who run the smuggling racket are based in Kolkata, but haven’t been able to locate their hideouts,” Chaturvedi said. STF and forest department officials nabbed 10 turtle poachers in Ambedkar Nagar district recently. While two of them were locals, eight hailed from West Bengal.
“This menace can be curbed only if we catch everybody in the smuggling racket, all the way from ground zero (the villages where turtles are captured) to Kolkata,” a police officer said.
Bhadohi district forest officer Manish Kumar Singh said smugglers recruit poor villagers in their illegal hunt for turtles. “They pay a pittance to the hunters and sell the turtles at a premium in the Kolkata market,” he added.
On the brink
Shailendra Singh, programme director of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) in Lucknow, said seven of the 14 turtle species in the state face extinction. “The demand for their meat and shells in national and international markets has led to a spurt in smuggling,” he said, adding that many also keep them as pets.
Rampant poaching has resulted in the virtual extinction of the shelled reptiles in Bihar, and the consequent shifting of focus to the river basins of UP, said Shailendra. The price of the turtle varies in accordance with demand. The meat of the Indian flapshell turtle — known as ‘sundari’ — can fetch between ?5,000 and ?10,000 per kg. On the other hand, the meat of the Indian softshell turtle (called katahwa) costs ?5,000 to ?15,000 for the same quantity. Though small, the spotted pond turtle sells for $500 dollar each in Thailand. Turtles from UP are usually smuggled to Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.
The gangs involved in turtle smuggling are well-knit, and possess expert information on turtle habitats. The turtle hunting season reaches its peak in the post-monsoon months of September and October. From November to January, turtles are transported to Kolkata.
Even if a consignment of turtles is recovered, releasing them into their natural habitat turns out to be a challenge for the TSA. “The smugglers collect turtles from various regions and pack them in gunny bags for transportation. We have to ensure that the turtles captured from the Chambal, Ghaghra and Ganga basins are re-released in their respective habitats for survival,” Shailendra said.
Considering that turtles are transported by train almost as often as road, government railway police personnel (GRP) have been directed to be on the lookout for potential smugglers. “We have nabbed several couriers and seized hundreds of turtles,” Gopal Gupta, director general of the Railways, said.
The UP forest department, for its part, has issued a statewide alert. In a letter to divisional and district forest officers, principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) Rupak Dey said forest officials nabbed turtle poachers in various districts — including Kanpur and Allahabad — recently. He has directed them to conduct raids with the help of STF personnel and the local police to crack down on poachers.