India accounts for 29% of black spotted turtles (Geoclemys hamiltonii) seized from across seven countries in South Asia, states a recent report by TRAFFIC, an international network monitoring trade in wildlife.
Classified as vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of threatened species, the black spotted turtle or spotted pond turtle is native to South Asia, and a heavily trafficked chelonian. The medium-sized freshwater turtle has a black shell with yellow streaks. The species was once smuggled for its meat and is now sought after as an exotic pet.
The report titled ‘Black Spotted Turtle Trade in Asia II: A Seizure Analysis’ records seizures of 10,321 specimens in 53 instances across seven countries between April 2014 and March 2016.
The highest number of seizures occurred in India, accounting for a total of 3,001 (29.33%) specimens. Of the 53 seizures across these seven countries, 38% (or 20) seizures were from India.
India is followed by Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand (1,995 specimens or 19%) and Hong Kong (1,775 specimens or 17%), followed by Bangladesh (1,197 specimens or 12%). The remaining specimens were seized from China, Pakistan and Singapore.
In India, the species is distributed across the north, northeast and a few parts of central India in States such as West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and parts of Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and Meghalaya. But an analysis of the trade route places Chennai as an important centre for the trade.
Saket Badola, head of TRAFFIC India, told The Hindu that as Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra fall completely out of the distribution range of the species, it proves that these States are used as trade routes. Seizure data indicates that black spotted turtles are transported to Chennai by car or train, and subsequently smuggled to other parts of the region.
In the past, Chennai has been identified as a major transit hub for illegal international trade in the Indian star tortoise, another species smuggled in large numbers. The report points out that four incidents of seizure have been reported in Chennai; two each in Nagpur, Mumbai and Kolkata; and three in Dhaka.
The 42-page report describes the India-Bangladesh border, part of the species’ natural range, as another hotspot for trade in the black soft-shelled turtle.
Bangladesh capital Dhaka “is in closer proximity to the Indian Black Spotted Turtle trade hotspots than most large Indian cities and may therefore function as a regional collection centre,” the publication states.
The seizures of 10,321 turtles in a period of two years marks a huge increase from the 2,171 turtles seized in 26 cases recorded between January 2008 and March 2014.
Explaining the rise in seizures, Dr. Badola said that alongside the increase in demand for such turtles, the alertness of enforcement agencies and their focus on the species had increased.
The report also highlights that 47% of the seizures involved smuggling via commercial flights. Of the 55 suspects arrested for smuggling black spotted turtles, the number of known convictions were only 20, a phenomenon that experts described as lacunae in the preparation of cases, and in procedural lapses in prosecution.
Apart from increasing public awareness, the report emphasises the need for better law enforcement and cooperation among international authorities.