Freshwater turtles. Photo: Aravind Chaturvedi
Freshwater turtles. Photo: Aravind Chaturvedi

The population of freshwater turtles in the river Ganges and its tributaries in India has been critically endangered by poachers.

People have been illegally catching turtles in the Gangetic basin for years. Shailendra Singh, country director of the Turtle Survival Alliance India, says 11 species in the Ganges and its tributaries are most endangered because of the international demand for them, especially in China and other South Asian countries for meat and body parts.

The Ganges has a rich biodiversity along its more than 2,500km-long course. It and its tributaries are home to 15 of the country’s 28 species of freshwater turtles.

Last year, law enforcement officials seized close to 15,000 freshwater turtles from smugglers in Uttar Pradesh alone. They also confiscated tonnes of dried calipees (the fleshy gelatinous part found immediately over the lower shell of a turtle), which thousands of turtles are believed to have been slaughtered for.

Conservationists think the actual number of smuggled turtles in the state is much higher. Despite a concerted effort by the Special Task Force of Uttar Pradesh Police and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) to check poaching of the species, a well-oiled network of buyers, couriers and fishermen has used novel methods to evade law enforcement agencies.

Smuggler reveals buyers

On March 30 this year, the Special Task Force managed an important catch when a certain Salim Sheikh, a resident of Malda in the state of West Bengal, was nabbed by police while trying to board a train, the Brahmaputra Express, at Kanpur Central railway station in Uttar Pradesh.

“He was carrying two suitcases and was in a rush to leave for Malda. When we made him open the suitcases, dried turtle calipee weighing around 27 kg was found neatly packed inside,” the Task Force’s Additional Superintendent of Police Aravind Chaturvedi said.

Salim Sheikh told police he had bought the animal parts from a local supplier for 5,000 rupees per kilogram. He also revealed the names of people who had supplied the turtle meat to him, plus the buyers in West Bengal he was going to sell it to.

Based on Sheikh’s tip-off, local police staged raids in Ghatampur and Etawa in central Uttar Pradesh on April 1 and arrested two people separately with 28kg and 103kg of turtle calipees respectively, busting a network whose reach extends to other countries.

Rising demand for meat, parts, shells

Shailendra Singh from the Turtle Survival Alliance noted that with rising disposable incomes in China and South Asian countries, the demand for freshwater turtle meat and body parts like calipee and shells, which are used in making aphrodisiac, has soared, and was fueling a burgeoning illegal turtle trade in India’s Gangetic plains.

“In China, people have this belief that if an animal is caught from the wild then its products will be more effective. Therefore, despite having farm-bred animals in the country, the Chinese prefer products like aphrodisiac medicines which are derived from wild animals,” Singh explained.

Aravind Chaturvedi, the Task Force official, said that during his investigation into turtle smuggling, he found that Burra Bazaar flower market in Kolkata was a hub for illegally traded freshwater turtles in India, especially those trafficked to Bangladesh.

“Flower sellers from Kolkata’s Burra Bazaar come in night trains with bundles of marigold flowers to the cities of central Uttar Pradesh like Bahraich, Gonda, Balrampur, Sultanpur, Faizabad, Amethi and Ambedkarnagar. They sell their flowers in the morning in wholesale markets and temples but on their return to Kolkata they will bring three or four bags full of turtles back with them,” Chaturvedi says.

While smugglers and traders are the middlemen in this international smuggling ring, at the core are humble fishermen living in the interior close to rivers and other water bodies. They catch the turtles and sell them to the couriers or middlemen in return for a few hundred rupees.

‘Worth more than fish’

“There are nomadic tribals and some temporary settlements of fishermen who come from Bihar, Bangladesh and live near riverbanks who are involved in catching turtles, as the animal fetches them a higher price in the market than fish,” says Singh.

Besides the Ganges, these reptiles are found in other rivers in Uttar Pradesh too. In the Chambal River, for instance, a highly endangered species of hard-shelled turtles called the Red-Crowned Roof Turtle (Batagur kachuga) is found. But they are on the brink of extinction due to poaching.

“Only 1,000 such turtles are left in the world now, with most of them in the Chambal River in the area of Agra, Gwalior and Etawa and some in Yamuna River,” Chaturvedi says.

The highly expensive turtles are much in demand in European, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries for their flesh.

Special Task Force police say the Red-Crowned Roofed Turtle is often taken abroad at Chennai airport, with the animals smuggled through check-in points without being detected.

“The animal is packed in luggage in such a way that it crosses the X-ray machine of the airport undetected,” says Chaturvedi.

Rampant poaching of turtles has pushed the species, whose lineage goes back as far as 260 million years, to the brink of extinction. Experts say as many as one-third of the world’s 300 species of tortoise and freshwater turtle may be extinct in the next 20 years if the present rate of illegal trade goes unchecked.