In one of the largest seizures of wildlife in the country, over 6,430 endangered turtles were found stuffed in large bags lying in the compound of a house in Gauri Ganj, Amethi, from where they were about to be smuggled to Kolkata, a hub for turtle trade in India. The softshell and flapshell turtles — cumulatively weighing over 4000 kg — were found by the UP Police’s elite Special Task Force team. Both species are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The STF spokesperson said the gang’s kingpin Raj Bahadur Singh was arrested in this connection, while two Indian softshell turtles were also seized from his possession. Two others gave the authorities the slip.
Illegal trade of these turtles is prevalent in India on account of various superstitious myths, and due to its high demand in the international market for meat, Feng Shui values and alleged production of aphrodisiacal medicine. Their shells are sent to Bangladesh and China for use in soups and powdered medicine. “There is a belief from Feng Shui traditions that a turtle with all 20 nails — 5 on each leg — brings good luck,” a senior Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) officer said. Turtles are also believed to be in high demand around the harvest festival of Makar Sankranti and its meat, which is said to be clean white and aromatic, is consumed in eastern and north eastern India. They are said to be useful for maintenance of purity of the river Ganges and its ecological balance, as they feed on crabs, snails, dead fish and fragments of dead animals. “Without these turtles, cleaning of Ganges would be even more difficult,” said a wildlife activist.
During interrogation, Singh disclosed that small poachers were involved in catching turtles from Gauriganj, Jagdishpur and Salwan, and supplying them to organised smugglers. Singh admitted he used to collect these animals from smugglers and transport them to Kolkata.
He also provided information about smugglers and poachers in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Odisha, revealing a large and highly organised smuggling network in the country. From Kolkata — the main transit point — turtles are smuggled to Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Thailand, Hong
Kong and other Southeast Asian countries from its shores.
The turtle species are native to South Asia, and is found only in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. In India, it lives in the Gangetic belt along Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, especially in the Ghagra-Gomti tributaries. They are spread across Fatehgarh, Kannauj, Allahabad and Varanasi in the state.
The reptiles are currently awaiting a release order from the court, after which the chief wildlife warden of Uttar Pradesh will order their release into their natural habitat.
Arvind Chaturvedi, head of the UP Special Task Force said, “This is not just a crime but also damage to the ecological balance. This is a big win for us as the STF is committed to controlling such illegal activities.”
Umendra Sharma, chief wildlife warden of the state forest department said, “The turtles are currently kept under observation. We will release them back into the wild once we receive the court order.”
Kartick Satyanarayan, CEO of Wildlife SOS, said, “We commend the STF for intercepting this consignment. We have offered our assistance to the chief wildlife warden to help rehabilitate these turtles.”
The state forest department on Wednesday issued a statewide alert and warned that more raids will be conducted to crack down on the smuggling of turtles. The state is home to 14 endangered turtle species out of the total 28 found in India. These include the Indian flapshell, softshell, roofed and black turtles.
Experts say India ranks among the top five Asian countries for turtle conservation, but nearly 40 per cent of the species are listed as endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.