Turtles

Turtles are reptiles and the word turtle is used to describe testudines or chelonians: turtle, tortoise and terrapin. (Tortoises have feet that resemble those of elephant’s.) The turtle is said to be a powerful symbol of both fertility and protection.

 

There are 29 species of turtles found in India. The shells of some tortoises even if badly damaged by being trampled by elephants and gaur are known to heal which has made people to believe they have medicinal properties and so they are hunted for their meat.


Sea turtle meat and eggs are generally not consumed by fisherfolk along the coast
of India because in Hindu mythology kurma or the turtle was one of Lord Vishnu’s avatars or incarnations. Also, some religious Muslims do not eat turtles.

However, among those who do consume turtles, the egg is appreciated more than the meat. That’s the reason why so many turtles’ eggs are stolen from arribada beaches. (Arribada is the Spanish word used for mass nesting of Olive Ridley and Kemp’s Ridley turtles.) Female turtles come in thousands to their natal beaches to lay eggs over a couple of nights. Using their hind flippers they dig 1½ foot deep conical nests in which they lay about 100 eggs. They return to the ocean soon after. 45 days later when the eggs hatch the baby turtles instinctively crawl across the beach, braving predators, into the ocean.


Before Independence, landlords of Orissa’s beaches took an anda-kar or egg-tax from those who collected them. Historically, the Olive Ridley turtle has been exploited for food, bait, oil, leather and fertiliser.


Olive Ridley turtle nests are found every year all along India’s coastline. They travel 9,000 kilometres from the foraging grounds off Australia to Sri Lanka and India. Amazingly about 1,50,000 turtles migrate together.

In addition to the Olive Ridley, 4 other species are found in our offshore waters: Hawksbill, Loggerhead, Green and Leatherback. NITI Aayog’s 2021 proposed project for Great Nicobar Island has unfortunately not taken into consideration the harm that will result to be nesting sites of the Leatherback Turtle, or to the Nicobar Megapode/Scrubfowl and the Dugong.

Unfortunately, other species are found in zoos like the world’s largest free-roaming land tortoise from the Aldabra atoll, a part of the Outer Islands of the Seychelles. In December 2020 one of the four Aldabras tortoises valued at Rs 15 lakh, purchased by the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust from Indonesia over two decades earlier as a tourist attraction, went missing.


Law turned Turtle


Widespread poaching (which peaks during December and January) has resulted in freshwater turtles becoming endangered.


Although protected under wild life laws, the turtle (which falls under the category of a reptile) is a food for some. Illegally captured along the Ganga, Yamuna and Chambal, they are consumed mainly in West Bengal and smuggled out via Bangladesh to South Asian countries, particularly to Thailand and Malaysia.

 

The Walk Through India website has listed Indian Star Tortoises as one of the five most heavily trafficked animals of India. They go on to state that this rare and exotic species found in the dry and arid forests of India, is very popular in the exotic pet trade not only in India but Asia.


Star tortoises are found all over India, particularly in the North West covering Uttar Pradesh where they are trapped and then moved on to West Bengal. The Border Security Force (BSF) frequently seizes gunny bags full worth crores of rupees, being smuggled to Bangladesh. In September 2013 the BSF seized 952 star tortoises (7 days to 7 years old) packed in gunny bags and worth Rs 3.19 crore that were being smuggled to Bangladesh from near the Tentulberia Border Outpost in West Bengal. In November 2013 the 40th battalion of BSF also seized Rs 4 crore worth of star tortoises; and the Bidhanagar police arrested three people and seized 70 sacks of turtles and star tortoises that arrived from Uttar Pradesh in a truck. Again in August 2014 the 40th battalion of BSF seized 360 star tortoises worth Rs 2 crore in gunny bags (on being apprehended, the smuggler escaped by jumping into the river) from Gunrajpur border outpost in North 24 Parganas district.  


Not long after, in December 2014 the Andhra Pradesh police seized bags containing 800 softshell turtles which were later released in Kolleru Lake. The turtles had been illegally caught in rivers and were ready to be despatched to Bihar and Odisha from Venkatapuram.

 

Flapshell turtles are also smuggled from UP to WB and out of India. Women from South and North 24 Parganas are involved in smuggling the turtles bought for Rs 2,000 per kg from Etawah, Oriah, Manpura, Sikurabad, Farukabad and Jaunpur districts of UP and sold for Rs 10,000 per kg. The first such arrest of seven women was made at Kanpur Central station when on a tip-off the Railway Protection Force found 400 live turtles. Again in January 2015 a truck from Andhra Pradesh containing 2,000 tortoises along with three persons were arrested on the NH6 in Howrah district of West Bengal. In January 2017, the largest ever wildlife seizure of 6,430 freshwater flapshell turtles, weighing 4.4 tonnes occurred. 140 jute sacks stuffed with them were discovered in UP on their way to Kolkata from where they were to be illegally sent out of India to Bangladesh, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, China, Hong Kong and Singapore.

 

Star tortoises are also caught by the Hakke Pakke tribe from dry scrub forests of Chittoor and Madanapalle districts of Andhra Pradesh and the Kolar district in Karnataka, and sold for a pittance to smugglers who if caught claim them to be captive-bred which of course is difficult to prove. Thousands are apprehended (mainly at airports), whereas thousands more get successfully smuggled out of India to meet the requirements of the international pet trade which fetches over Rs 25,000/- abroad.


In August 2015, 79 chelonians (tortoises, turtles and terrapins) were seized at the Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru, while being smuggled to Malaysia. They were all found to be underweight, the reason being that they must have been starved for over 3 weeks so that they would weigh less as baggage. To prevent movement, they were tied together and stuck with cellophane tapes inside the two suitcases in which they were hidden resulting in three deaths and suffocation for all.

 

In November 2018 for the first time 51 smuggled star tortoises from India to Singapore were sent back from Singapore to India. The repatriation was carried out by Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) with support from the Agri-food & Veterinary Authority (AVA), Government of India and Wildlife SOS in India.

In April 2018, 65 star tortoises were seized at Chennai airport from a passenger bound for Bangkok. And in October and November 2018 as many as 2,300 and 4,800 red-eared slider turtles were seized from passengers who arrived at Chennai airport from Bangkok. Despite this a water/red-eared slider/terrapin was not confiscated nor was Mumbai the family prosecuted for keeping it as a pet by the Forest Department in December 2020 when it fell from the 7th floor balcony in Mumbai and broke its shell.


As many as 90,000 critically endangered turtles were caught being trafficked as pets, for food or aphrodisiacs by the Special Task Force (Wildlife) in Madhya Pradesh in 2017 which led to the arrest of 16 persons in the case who received a stringent 7-year sentence.


Trapping, killing and selling of Olive Ridley sea turtles attracts up to 7 years imprisonment under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. However, not a single person of Orissa has been convicted in 3 decades during which period over 3 lakh turtles have been found dead on the coast. Traditional fishers of the area use gill and drift nets in which the turtles can get trapped but they themselves do not consume them.

In 1979, Beauty Without Cruelty armed with first hand photographic evidence, exposed the cruelty involving 10,000 turtles poached annually from Digha beach in West Bengal, but a ban on their consumption was not implemented till years later when again based on first hand information of illegal trade provided by BWC, successful raids in Kolkata’s New Market and New Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park were carried out in 1990.


Turtle Meat and Eggs


One of the world’s largest populations of Olive Ridley turtles is found off the east coast of India in Orissa which is why protecting them and their habitat on Orissa’s coast is considered very important by conservationists. These turtles live at sea, but when females come to nest on land, they are captured from the beaches. Turned over on their backs on the hot sand in order to immobilise them, they are then transported live to cities where they are clandestinely sold. The eggs which are also eaten are illegally gathered during nesting periods between January and March.

It is unfortunate that particularly young turtles, due to bright lights (although some factories have along the coast have begun switching off their halogen lights during the nesting season) get disoriented and move in the wrong direction: shore-wards instead of going out into the sea.

The Dharma Port Company is a joint venture of Tata Steel and Larsen & Toubro. As the mega-port is 5 kms close to the turtles’ mass nesting beach of the Gaharimatha National Park, Greenpeace (and other conservation groups) strongly opposed the project with the aim of protecting India’s coasts, and went as far as loading an online game called “Turtle vs. Tata” on their website. Despite objections from their own Marine Turtle Specialist Group members, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) partnered them. The port was officially inaugurated in December 2011, and by March 2013 proudly declared having crossed the 10 million MT of cargo for the year.

Olive Ridley turtles are also found on the Konkan coast where “turtle tourism” is being encouraged, but the turtles find it as difficult to survive on this coast because almost all their nests are stolen and sold at Rs 5/- per egg bringing in approximately Rs 750/- per nest of 150 eggs. Eggs take around 60 days to hatch and the chance of hatchlings emerging is only 60%. Local bodies along with the forest department organised a Turtle Festival in 2011 (under the auspices of “Save the Olive Ridley Turtle” project started by NGOs in 2002) on the Velas beach at Mandangad taluk in Ratnagiri district so that people can watch the eggs hatch – the organisers would ensure that they go into the sea safely. Furthermore ensure that the hatchings emerge successfully, hatcheries containing replicas of natural nests created in them were built in some of the nesting sites of the turtles.

Two years later in 2013, the festival covered not only Velas in Ratnagiri, but four other beaches in the Konkan region including Dive, Agar, Maral, Harihareshwar and Mochemad and attracted more Indian and foreign tourists. The Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) also decided to organise a Dolphin (spotting) and Turtle (watching) festival on the beaches of Murud-Harnai and Velas in March with the aim of making the area one of the main tourist destinations in Maharashtra. During February-March 2015 more dolphins (than turtles) were spotted because of only a handful of turtle nests were laid due to untimely rain and excess sand on the beach.

In 2012 following a study commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme, it was revealed that the nesting area of Olive Ridley turtles had shrunk along with Maharashtra coastline, basically due to a change in high tide. The report also stated that despite many positive steps taken towards the conservation of Olive Ridley turtles, the population was constantly declining in this area due to exploitation of eggs, accidental mortality associated with shipping and the lack of use of turtle excluders by trawlers. It would have been much worse if the turtles’ nests had not been protected for nearly a decade – turtle fests organised by an NGO (with recent support from the Forest Department) in 36 villages along the coast while encouraging people to visit and witness turtles laying eggs, hatching and instinctively heading towards the sea, also effectively protected nests against poaching of eggs.

 

By February 2013, quite likely due to turtles losing their nesting site to industries, only 36 nests were found in Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts. Thus there was a further drop in nests and hatchings from 81 nests with 3482 hatchlings in 2011, and 68 nests with 3555 hatchlings in 2012.

Sea-turtles along the Kerala coast are also dwindling and not only due to poaching – the turtle meat trade is prevalent in southern parts of the state. In addition to being killed in fishing trawler nets and due to marine debris, their nesting sites have been severely affected. They require sloping beaches to come onto the sands for hatching, but there are hardly any left because a substantial part of the coast has been walled to prevent erosion, thus making the beaches unsuitable for nesting. It was therefore very heartening when in January 2014 Keralites took a pledge to save them – both mosques and temples along the coastal areas of Kasaragod district sought pledges from their devotees to protect the endangered Olive Ridley turtles which turn up at their beaches for nesting every year.

In March 2018 after two decades Olive Ridleys returned to nest on Versova beach. Cleaning the beach was the main reason for their return.


In 2021 the Maharashtra Forest Department discovered Indian tent turtles and Indian roofed turtles (listed as ‘vulnerable’ in the IUCN red list) being illegally traded for meat, Chinese medicinal and even the pet trade, in Pune District. A case was registered against the culprit.

It was heartening to know that in August 2021 in a joint operation the Turtle Survival Alliance and the Maharashtra State Forest Department flew 63 rescued turtles from Pune to Assam to be released into their natural habitat.


Protection


Orissia’s fishermen have been strongly objecting to the Government’s annual ban on fishing for about seven months of the year along a 20 km stretch within the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary which is imposed at the beginning of the breeding season around October/November and continues through out the mass nesting of the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles, usually till end-May. Despite protection extended by the forest department, as many as 372 turtle carcasses were found on the beach in 2008. This is probably because no patrolling in boats is done by the foresters. Although NGOs helped, it was given up after loss of human lives on both sides.

Just as well that in May 2009 the Government of India re-declared a 7 km stretch in Ganga from Rajghat to Ramnagar Fort near Varanasi as the Ganga Turtle Sanctuary thus putting an end to Uttar Pradesh State Government’s plans of a luxury river cruise. Of the 29 species of tortoises and fresh water turtles found in India, the Ganges is home to 12 species and their adequate presence is an indicator of a healthy river ecosystem. (Incidentally the Ganga is also home to more than 143 species of fresh water fish.)

Since the Centre’s 1,620 kms national waterways project was to pass through this Kachhua Sanctuary (originally notified in 1989 as the country’s first freshwater turtle sanctuary under the Ganga Action Plan) it was unfortunately de-notified in 2018 and the Uttar Pradesh state government come up with a plan of a possible “relocation” of turtles to the Allahabad-Mirzapur stretch of the Ganga.

In December 2019 a vehicle was seized and 5 persons arrested by the Kakinada rural police with 4 tonnes of fresh water turtles stuffed in 150 gunny bags (25 to 30 kgs in each bag). They had been captured in East and West Godavari districts and were being smuggled to Odisha.

At the Madhavpur hatchery, the largest such along the coast of Gujarat, Green Sea turtles are protected from poachers and predators. In February 2018, 1785 hatchlings were released.

In November 2021, 120 tortoises were released in the Chandrapur forest by the Maharashtra Forest Division. They had been rescued with the help of a NGO ResQ Charitable Trust from illegal pet traders and traffickers from Satara, Solapur, Sangli, Alibag and other places of the state.


Trawling Hazard


Trawlers or mechanised fishing vessels go out to the sea for ten days at a stretch consuming about 3,000 litres of diesel. To protect fish-breeding and decrease the catch, they are banned during the monsoon but if the rains are not heavy country crafts are allowed to venture into the sea.

USA banned the import of shrimps from India that are harvested by fishing vessels not fitted with the Turtle Excluder Device (TED) developed by the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology. As per international law a TED consists of a trap door placed in shrimp-nets, allowing the air-breathing sea turtles to escape without drowning. Nevertheless, mass killing of turtles (and some dolphins) is attributed to reckless and illegal fishing by trawlers (mechanised fishing boats) in the prohibited areas of the coast because fishermen are reluctant to fit the mandatory TEDs. Hundreds of TEDs have been given free to Orissa’s fishermen, but they are not used because when their trap doors open to release the turtles, 10% of the fish caught also escape.

 

In May 2011 about 150 Olive Ridley turtles were trapped and died in a single net on Kothapeta beach near Vajrapukotturu Mandal in Srikakulam district of Karnataka. The disaster occurred because of no TED fitted to the mechanised boat or trawler.

The fact remains that trawlers go on killing thousands of turtles with their long and broad nets since they scoop up all lives that are caught. 40-80% is the by-catch (what is not consumed by humans) and is either thrown back into the sea or ground into fishmeal for fertilisers and chicken feed. Turtles, when caught in these nets, suffocate and die (it is vital for them to rise above the surface of the water and breathe every half hour or earlier) and therefore fall into the category of being thrown back into the sea. But, do they really get thrown back into the sea is the big question? Every one knows that meat and shells of turtles are illegally traded.

Around Chennai turtles have been tagged and the information tracked regarding their feeding grounds and congregation paths is being given to fishermen who are requested not to fish in particular sensitive areas, or to at least lift their nets every 40 minutes, especially during the breeding season.

While the government said no more than 800 turtles were killed between November 2010 and February 2011, environmentalists countered that the figure was actually 5,000. The fact remains that despite a 7-month ban on fishing to help conserve Orissa’s marine sanctuaries, the interests of fishermen are considered much more important by the government and fish farming like crab fattening, sea bass or composite fish culture, scampi or fresh-water prawn culture are being promoted in 60 villages as alternative livelihoods.

Plastic garbage thrown in the sea also accounts for sea turtles being killed. They probably think it is jelly fish, consume it and die.

Similarly, turtles have been affected by oil spills and have been washed up dead or dying. In April 2010 parts of the Ganjam coast in Orissa lay covered with oil after a ship carrying coal from Indonesia, which was anchored at Gopalpur port, was hit by a motor boat and developed a crack in its fuel tank. Although most of the spilled oil was immediately cleared from the sea-surface, environmentalists feared that the Olive Ridley turtle eggs may have been damaged – over 200,000 eggs had been laid near the mouth of the Rushikulya, about 20 km from the port.

Furthermore, leakage of oil due to a crack in the Paradip-Haldia underground pipeline of the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) posed a threat to Olive Ridley sea turtles in January 2011. (Ironically in 2004 the Supreme Court observed that the Rs 1 crore given by IOC for turtle protection had not been utilised for 4 years!) The traditional marine fishermen’s association protested that such oil leaks were occurring often and that they made the water toxic like in this instance which resulted in aquatic life like prawns perishing.

In 2009, a leatherback turtle was rescued at Kanyakumari. It was not only tied to an anchored fibre-glass boat, but a sand bag and stone were tied to it so it would not escape.

In 2019 the Olive Ridley turtles did not show up at Rushikulya to lay eggs just as they hadn’t in 2002, 2007 and 2016. Climate change, illegal fishing and illumination of the Gopalpur port and other establishments were blamed. However, by end March 2020 Odisha had witnessed day time nesting after a gap of 7 years. It was obviously due to lack of tourists as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown. Similarly in Maharashtra, the popular annual Olive Ridley turtle nesting season festivals had been called off, but reports of finding nests in places where they were never seen before were received.


Cruel and Pointless


In 2001 an experiment to track the turtle path through satellite telemetry technique was unsuccessfully conducted, this was followed in 2007 by fitting some female turtles with platform transmitter terminals which developed technical snags resulting in the death of some turtles. So once again in 2009 another experiment was undertaken by fitting 40 transmitters at an estimated Rs 3.5 crore. Beauty Without Cruelty believes such experiments are downright cruel and obviously a colossal waste of money by the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun.


Superstitions


Turtles fall in the category of exotic pets. For example, the black spotted turtle is found attractive enough to poach and smuggle out of India. Thousands of turtles were seized during the year ending March 2014.

Star tortoises and turtles are gifted or bought because Feng Shui claims they are lucky; but few realise how very unlucky and extremely cruel it is for the turtles themselves to be cooped up in apartments, walking on tiles instead of earth. Over and above which they are an endangered species and are also smuggled out of the country. Depending on the species, the person caught could very well be imprisoned for six months.

On 23 May 2019 World Turtle Day, BWC came out with an awareness creating Hinsa vs. Ahinsa e-mailer about illegal trapping of star tortoises. That they were being starved so that the smuggled consignments weigh less was stated and we added that keeping star tortoises was cruel and unlucky.


BWC was therefore pleased when in August 2019 the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) at their meeting in Geneva voted to totally ban international trade in star tortoises by upgrading them to Appendix I (threatened with extinction). We hope this will help in stopping or at least curtailing the illegal trade in star tortoises.


Turtles are also utilised for black magic by exorcists and can cost any thing from Re 1 to Rs 3 lakhs.

In May 2012 some animal activists discovered that a person from Jalandhar was illegally selling turtles on line, following which the Wildlife Crime Bureau was approached to save them, and of course catch and punish the person under the Wildlife Act. Some years ago turtles were also found to be illegally sold by a dealer in Punjab when raids were successfully conducted. And, in January 2013 a man was arrested at Pune and the 10 tortoises he was trying to sell confiscated. Then in March 2013, customs authorities at Mumbai seized a checked-in suitcase to Bangkok containing 97 turtles that had been individually wrapped in cloth.


Products from Turtles


In 1977 the worldwide trade of tortoise-shell (“bekko” in Japanese) was banned under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) but underground trade in South-East Asia continues.

Turtles are farmed (bred and raised to be killed) in China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, USA and Cayman Islands.

In earlier times, the turtle carcass was allowed to decay in cool water before processing; now 20% lime is used to quicken the process. Vinegar processing is also a method used by the Chinese. For crafting ornamental items, the shells are softened and made pliable by either boiling in salt water or applying direct heat. In its softened state, the shell can be easily bent, shaped or impressed; and when it cools back to room temperature, it retains its new shape and form.

Turtle meat and turtle eggs are common and turtle soup is well known, but calipee, the medicinal delicacy that is found inside the lower half of the shell, is processed and frequently smuggled out from India to Bangladesh (from where it goes to China) without it being detected for what it is because it is claimed to be fish scales or buffalo horn extracts. The cost of 1 kg of processed calipee is only Rs 3,000/- in India, but its price soars to Rs 12,000/- in Bangladesh.

One of the places where poaching occurs is the Hastinapur Wild Life Sanctuary (Uttar Pradesh) through which the Ganga, Ram Ganga and Kho rivers flow. As the water levels dip in the rivers, usually during the months of November and December, people hunt to sell them to 5 Star hotels for making soup.

Banjo-like musical instrument made from a single carapace (protective dorsal or upper section of the shell) as the resonator.

Fire-bellows (a fan that pushes air at low constant pressure into a burning fire) each made from either one or two carapaces.

Small sea turtles are killed, stuffed and marketed as tourist souvenirs and curios. In 2013 BWC signed a petition requesting China to ban the frivolous and cruel manufacture and sale of jewellery, amulets, key chains, etc. having tiny live animals such as turtles sealed in a plastic bag containing a nutrient liquid and oxygen that supposedly allows the poor little creatures to live up to two months.

The plastron (belly or lower half of the shell) is almost flat and used by the Chinese for plastromancy or divination, as oracle bones, and for traditional medicines in Cambodia as well. Taiwan imports hundreds of tons of plastrons every year to make guilinggao jelly (shell gelatine), a dessert with medicinal properties.

Tortoise-shell obtained from the carapace of certain tortoises and turtles, especially the critically endangered hawksbill turtles, is mainly utilised in decorative items, personal accessories like stylish hair clips, buttons, and combs, sunglasses, compact and trinket boxes teamed with silver, cigarette cases, shaving brush, knife and other handles, door knobs, candlesticks, trays, frames, lamps, figurines, jewellery (particularly bangles, also Victorian Era pique work), guitar and banjo picks.

Faux tortoise-shell finish (also known as French ivory) which involved painting in three typical colours (gold, copper and bronze) was first popular in the mid-1800s and used for clocks and other items. Over the years, resins, bakelite (polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride) and other alternative materials (plastics) were utilised to produce faux tortoise-shell items. The latest alternative is tortoise-shell plexi (or plexiglass) which is a light transparent weather resistant thermoplastic. However, imitation or faux tortoise-shell called Tortex was developed much later, in the 1970s. Tortex picks replicate tortoise-shell for guitarists, and the Torti pick for the banjo players.

Turtle blood and body-parts are used as aphrodisiac, livestock feed and fishing bait.

Turtle bones are made into tools, art objects, jewellery and fertilisers.

Turtle leather, considered strong, is used to make gloves, purses and footwear.

Turtle oil and fat is extracted from the muscles and genital glands of the giant sea turtle, used in supplements, ointments, cosmetics, creams, lotions and soaps supposedly to promote skin rejuvenation by tightening muscles. However, in South America turtle oil is prepared from turtle eggs and is said to be as good as cod liver oil.

Turtle wax, used for polishing cars is not derived from turtles but is a brand name.

Turtle is also a brand name used by a men’s apparel and accessories manufacturer.

Page last updated on 08/11/21