This World Turtle Day 2019, let us learn about some of India’s endangered turtle species and the main causes of their population decline.

What are turtles?

Turtles, along with terrapins and tortoises, belong to the Testudines order of reptiles. The familiar shell that we see on all turtles is developed from their ribs and is made up of cartilage. Turtles are among the oldest reptile groups in India today, even surpassing many snakes and lizards in evolutionary age. Many species of turtle spend most of their life in the water, but must surface to breathe air and to lay eggs. Eggs are laid in holes in mud or sand and parental care is virtually nonexistent across species.

Sea Turtles in India:

There are five species of Indian sea turtles: the Olive Ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea); the Green Sea turtle (Chelonia mydas); the Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate); the Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea); and the Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta).

Olive Ridley sea turtles gathered on a nesting beach in Rushikulya, Odisha (P.C. Asit Kumar/AFP). The Olive Ridley is well-known for its unique mass-nesting behaviour, where thousands of females come together to the same beach to lay eggs. Olive Ridleys have confirmed nesting sites along the coastline of Odisha, near Gahirmatha, the single-largest nesting site for sea turtles in India.
A green sea turtle captured on an underwater camera (P.C. Google Images). This is the largest of the world’s hardshell sea turtles with adults weighing between 60-130 kgs. They derive their name from the layer of green fat beneath their hard shell. Unlike most other sea turtles, the green sea turtle’s diet comprises of seaweeds and sea grasses. Female turtles migrate vast distances to lay their eggs on the beaches where they were born, sometimes migrating over 2,600 km (National Geographic).
The hawksbill sea turtle derives its name from its distinctive tapered head that ends in a sharp beak much like a bird. This turtle also has a pair of sharp claws on each flipper. Hawksbill turtles avoid deep water and prefer shallow coastal waters where sponges can be found and nesting beaches are easily accessible (P.C. Douglas A. Kahle/National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation)
The largest of all living turtles, the Leatherback sea turtle, is the fourth heaviest modern reptile after three species of crocodilians. It is easily distinguished from other turtles by its lack of a hard shell, hence deriving its name. Its carapace is covered in an oily skin layer (P.C. J.G. Collumb). 

Apart from sea turtles, India is home to the red-crowned roof turtle (Batagur kachuga), the roofed turtle (Pangshura tecta), the black pond turtle (Geoclemys hamiltonii), the softshelled turtle (Aspideretes gangeticus), the Indian narrow-head softshelled turtle (Chitra indica), and the cane turtle (Vijayachelys silvatica). We also have the highly-endangered and highly-poached star tortoise (Geochelone elegans), which is popular in the exotic pet trade. Many species of tortoises exist in India, including the Travancore tortoise, found only in the Western Ghats.


A Watery Grave: Threats to Sea Turtles in India

Although Hindus consider the turtle to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu the Preserver, turtles face various threats in India today. While fishing communities along the coasts where turtles nest do not consume eggs or turtle meat out of religious respect, natural predators such as crabs, birds, and mammals may prey upon eggs or young turtles on their way to the sea. In the water, hatchlings may fall prey to large species of fish.

A major threat to sea turtles is poaching. Turtles are poached for their shell (known as a carapace) and flesh, which is considered a delicacy in many cuisines. The carapace of the hawksbill turtle, in particular, is coveted. Turtle eggs are also considered a delicacy, turtle oil is used in cosmetics, and turtle skin is used to make leather bags and shoes.

P.C. National Geographic

Turtles are also frequently caught as a by-catch in fishing. While many accidentally captured sea turtles are tossed back into the ocean, they sustain injuries, which may be life threatening. Gill nets are the most commonly used trawling device in the Indian Ocean, contributing 30-40% of total catch for commercial and artisanal fishing. These nets, however, have a particularly high by-catch rate for turtles and sharks. A study in 2006 assessed the by-catch of turtles from Indian fisheries, excluding the Gahirmatha coastline of Orissa (where Olive Ridleys lay their eggs), and found that about 2574 individuals are captured per year (Rajagopalan et al. 2006). Another study found that nearly 9,000 Olive Ridley sea turtles were caught as by-catch per year along the Orissa coast, a shocking number for conservationists to stomach (Shanker et al. 2004). Due to their life history, sea turtles are particularly vulnerable to fishing. As air-breathers, they frequently breach the surface of the water, where gill nets skim for fish. They also are slow growers and late to mature sexually, making it difficult for populations to recover once depleted. To read more about by-catch and the species (other than turtles) affected by fisheries industries in India, click here.

Plastic pollution has become synonymous with the Anthropocene, and turtles too succumb to the presence of plastic wastes in the ocean. A study in 2015 estimated that nearly eight million metric tons of plastic waste end up in the ocean each year. While straws, bags, bottles, and wrappers constitute alarming proportions of plastic waste in oceans, microplastics (broken down fragments of plastic) are the most abundant plastic waste in our waters. The same study estimates anywhere between 93,000 and 236,000 metric tons of microplastics in our planet’s oceans.  Sea turtles often mistake floating plastic bags for their key prey species – jellyfish. Studies show that young turtles often gravitate towards oceanic gyres because they concentrate seaweed; however, these gyres also concentrate garbage, which can be consumed by these turtles (Schuyler et al. 2012).

A Bright Light at the (Wrong) End of the Tunnel:

P.C. The Guardian

Perhaps the most devastating threat to newly-hatched Olive Ridley sea turtles is the presence of artificial lights on nesting beaches due to tourism and human settlements. Hatchlings, after leaving the safety of their eggs, usually navigate towards the sea by the reflection of the moon on the water. But with more lights inland, hatchlings are often confused and turn away from the sea, towards human habitation, and never make it to the ocean. Artificial lighting leads them towards threats of being run over by vehicles or killed by predators, or even death by dehydration and fatigue.

Prey to Human Greed:

P.C. Neil D’Cruze/World Animal Protection

Indian star tortoises are one of the most trafficked species in order Testudines in the world. The anti-poaching organization TRAFFIC seized over 6,040 Indian star tortoises in 2017, saving the tortoises from the exotic pet trade. A study published in Nature Conservation in 2014 uncovered at least 55,000 star tortoises poached from a single trade hub in South India. The same study found that star tortoises are popularly and openly kept as pets as they are considered to be a good omen. Many temples were also found to keep star tortoises, believing them to be the incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Primary collectors of star tortoises in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu typically sold the animals to urban traders for a price of 50 to 300 rupees per animal. These tortoises are sent by train to eastern India, from where they are shipped to Southeast Asia and China. Unfortunately, legislation surrounding this species is also fairly lax; the star tortoise is listed under Appendix II of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which allows the international trade of the species provided the proper permits are in place. In India, the star tortoise has secured a place on Schedule IV of the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, making it illegal to possess or commercially trade this species within or from India. But legal loopholes in consumer nations such as Thailand and China undermine the enforcement of this trade in India.

Will a Protective Shell Ensure Protection in the Future?

With expansion of human habitation, light pollution, irresponsible fishing practices, plastic pollution, and the illegal wildlife trade, it is no wonder that India is rapidly losing its native species of turtles and tortoises. Key to the continued survival of these ancient beings are the following:

  1. Better law enforcement – this includes raising awareness about the illegal pet trade and patrolling known hubs for illegal wildlife trade
  2. Stronger fishing regulations – a large cause of death of sea turtles is by fishery by-catch, which can be prevented by enforcing fishing practices and setting aside no-fishing zones to reduce the widespread impact on turtles
  3. Community outreach – local communities in coastal Odisha are some of the most stalwart supporters of the Olive Ridley sea turtle breeding programme and take special care to avoid disturbing these turtles when they come ashore for the nesting season. Such efforts by locals who live alongside turtles and tortoises can prevent unnecessary stressors to these species and also prevent the targeted poaching of certain species due to local knowledge of the animal’s habitat and behaviour.

After all, having a protective shell does not guarantee protection from human disturbances going forward in the Anthropocene. Even the smallest of initiatives from our end can make a difference.



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