Steady approach to protect fauna
In Chennai, home to the Olive Ridley turtle, come nesting season, environmentalists have decried how there has been a 90% reduction in nesting numbers since 1970.
Earlier this week, wildlife enthusiasts observed World Turtle Day. The observance highlights the plight of turtles and tortoises that are now facing extinction on account of habitat loss, poaching, indiscriminate fishing (ending up as bycatch in fishing nets and gear), human inaction as well as smuggling. These creatures that are part of Indian epics, and under normal circumstances would enjoy a lifespan of 80-150 years, are now being rendered vulnerable to the point of oblivion.
In Chennai, home to the Olive Ridley turtle, come nesting season, environmentalists have decried how there has been a 90% reduction in nesting numbers since 1970. Increased fishing activity coupled with encroachments, and susceptibility to poachers who profit off turtle eggs have turned the conservation narrative upside down. Sea turtles also have a very high mortality rate in the early stages of life, and just about one in a thousand hatchlings manage to reach the point of reproductive adulthood, which is another cause for dwindling numbers.
Habitat loss aside, turtles are considered exotic delicacies and the sources of miracle cures as per oriental medicine. They are slaughtered for their meat, eggs, skin and shell, which has spawned a cottage industry of trafficking. Earlier this year, air customs officers in the city had confiscated 1,364 live star tortoises, classified as an endangered species, from an export consignment at the Chennai airport that was bound for Malaysia. Another raid brought the number of live star tortoises seized in the region to 3,600. A similar check was carried out in Bengaluru where 600 such tortoises that were bound to be flown out, were confiscated by the officials.
A kingpin of wildlife trafficking previously sentenced to imprisonment on account of smuggling flap shell turtles from UP was said to be behind these latest exploits. The tortoises poached from the forests of Chittoor are usually smuggled into Sri Lanka or South East Asia, where they are regarded as highly-prized pets. The star tortoise is categorised under Schedule IV of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 and is listed under Appendix I of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which supposedly offers it the highest level of international protection from commercial trade.
But, there’s a booming market for exotic pets in India too, fuelled by a combination of implementation bottlenecks on part of the government, absence of awareness regarding trafficking, as well as the sheer volume of international traffic and the ‘ingenious’ modus operandi employed by those involved in the trading of such organic contraband. It’s why animals such as kangaroos, meerkats, Burmese pythons, white cockatoos, palm civets and albino monkeys have made it to these shores, often as exotic pets. The complete ban on trading in Indian species has also precipitated this demand for exotic animals.
Failure to curtail illegal wildlife trade will only accelerate the depletion of many animal species that are already in a state of vulnerability globally. Apart from driving consensus in ordinary citizens to steer clear of raising such pets, what is necessary is a political will on part of both the Centre and the States. An amendment has been proposed to the Wildlife (Protection) Act to punish violators indulging in trading of exotic/foreign animals with an increased fine of Rs 75,000 and five years imprisonment.
A solid framework, backed by adequate manpower, that can enforce stringent penalties for legal infringements as well as disincentivise illegal trade and over-exploitation could go a long way in protecting indigenous species essential to the long term well-being of our marine, land and arboreal ecosystems.