‘UN rejection to give higher protection status to star tortoises a blow to India’s slow, steady efforts to save them’
Experts who helped draft plan hope next month’s verdict will be in their favour
The United Nation’s (UN) Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has recommended that India’s proposal for a higher protection status for Indian star tortoises, a major wildlife species that is increasingly being smuggled out of the country, be rejected.
The Indian star tortoise , which lives in dry scrublands, grasslands, and coastal areas in south Asia, is currently included in CITES Appendix II, which includes species that are not ‘threatened with extinction’, but are allowed to be treated under certain conditions. However, India wants the species to be added to Appendix I to completely stop the illegal trade. The CITES Secretariat said it was not clear what additional benefit an Appendix-I listing would provide to the conservation of the species. “The Secretariat recommends that this proposal be rejected,” the recommendation said. India, supported by Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Senegal, proposed to enhance the protection status to ensure stringent trade control and improve scrutiny of captive-breeding operations.
The reptiles are the world’s most illegally traded species of tortoise and wildlife experts said they are being stolen from the wild in unprecedented numbers for the pet and food industry.
The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) said they will try again to get the species more protection. The ministry has created a committee to look at the reason why the CITES secretariat rejected their proposal. “The secretariat has their own opinion, but it is influenced by other partner countries. The recommendation is in no manner the final word as the present view can be overruled,” said MS Negi, additional director general of forest (wildlife).
“We will be submitting our responses telling the secretariat that their stance is not correct, and the revised proposal will be placed before the CoP18. The star tortoise trade is rising at an alarming rate internationally. India has no market for any wildlife trade, especially this species. Why should we lose our asset (indigenous species) for the sake of someone else’s profit?,” he added.
The final decision on inclusion of Indian star tortoise in Appendix I will be taken during the 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP18) from August 17 to 28. CITES, which has 183 countries as members, is mandated to ensure that international trade does not threaten the survival of wild plants and animals.
Wildlife researchers who helped draft the proposal for India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and Sri Lanka said India’s efforts to protect the vulnerable species were being severely undermined.
“The Indian star tortoise is the world’s most illegally traded species of tortoise and is being stolen from the wild in unprecedented numbers. Up-listing this species to Appendix I will raise its global profile and strengthen international cooperation by enforcement agencies,” said Dr Neil D’Cruze Head of Wildlife Research, World Animal Protection, non-profit based in London, UK. “If Appendix I protection status is not received for this species, it will be a terrible blow for the species and to those actively trying to protect it – range state governments, enforcement agencies and conservationist alike.”
The final decision on inclusion of Indian star tortoise in Appendix I will be taken during the eighteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP18) from August 17 to 28. “The trade volume in these species is huge and this is threatening its survival. The assessment by CITES secretariat is just a counterview to India’s proposal, but it is no binding on any party countries. India will be pressing its demand before the Conference of the Parties to CITES in August that the claim being made is proper and it needs to be in Appendix I for having a better enforcement mechanism in place,” said Saket Badola, head, TRAFFIC India, a wildlife trade monitoring group.
In India, the species is currently protected under Schedule IV of the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972, but considering the large number of seizures within India, researchers have suggested the species be included in Schedule I, at par with tigers, leopards, and elephants. “Indian wildlife protection laws are some of the strongest in the world, but tend to be largely mammal-centric, ignoring some of the lesser known, but equally important species,” said Aniruddha Mookerjee, consultant wildlife advisor, WildCRU, University of Oxford, who helped draft the proposal along with D’Cruze and led an investigation into the trade in India. “This gives less teeth to the Indian enforcement agencies, who despite these hurdles have won international recognition for their tortoise focused operations.”
SS Kandpal, joint director, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), said, “Five years ago, enforcement authorities along borders, airports or railway stations were not aware about the protection or conservation status of these species. Increased awareness over the years, with a strong enforcement mechanism, has brought us far enough to demand international protection status for this species. It is the need of the hour.”
MS Negi, additional director general of forest (wildlife), said the environment ministry was already in the process of amending WPA to include the Indian star tortoise and other lesser known threatened species in Schedule 1.
“The provisions of WPA are much more stringent than any provisions under CITES Appendices. Amending the act is a long-drawn process and it will take time, but we should be rest assured that everything is being done to protect the habitat and population within India,” he
“As taking these species from India is becoming difficult by the day, traders and smugglers have begun taking the stock population of star tortoises and are carrying out captive breeding in other countries to increase the volume of trade. Egypt and Jordan are big hubs for this. Secondly, CITES is a business regulatory model and not a conservation-centric body where votes from countries matter, especially the ability of the business lobby of countries (focusing on profits) that want a particular species listed up or down in appendices,” said Jose Louies, who leads the wildlife trade control and litigation division at Wildlife Trust of India.