Raid to Rescue Freshwater Turtles, Malda, West Bengal

Meghna Banerjee | Team HEAL


Chosen as 'Picture of the Week'

HEAL and the West Bengal Forest Department rescued 12 Indian flapshell turtles and 5 Indian softshell turtles and arrested the trader. Both species are protected under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The turtles were released back into their habitat by the department officials.

On 12th April 2022, members of the Human & Environment Alliance League (HEAL), led by Jayanta Chakraborty got a turtle dealer arrested in a joint covert operation with the Forest Department at Malda, West Bengal. The operation began with a tip-off by local informers about a trade happening in the Gazole area in Malda. On 10th April 2022, our volunteers posing as buyers interacted with the turtle trader and confirmed his whereabouts.

12 Indian flapshell turtles (Lissemys punctata) and 5 Indian softshell turtles (Nilssonia gangetica) were seized during the raid. Both species are protected under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and are categorized as Vulnerable and Endangered respectively on the IUCN Red List. The arrested trader is a repeat offender and has been remanded to judicial custody till 22nd April 2022. The turtles were taken to the Forest Department office and were eventually released in the Ganges. HEAL thanks the DFO of the Malda Forest Division and the Ranger concerned for making this operation possible and letting our members accompany the Forest Officials during the release of the reptiles.

The Indian softshell turtle and the Indian flapshell turtle share similar habitats and life-history traits. They are both found in all major Indian rivers and lakes and are often seen basking on fallen logs, on steep banks of rivers and even in temple ponds and wells. Like all softshell turtles, both have long necks with extended nostrils and flat bodies which help them breathe at the surface of the water while lying still. They are voracious feeders and their diet largely consists of fish, freshwater invertebrates, frogs and aquatic plants. The presence of freshwater turtles is considered a healthy indicator of freshwater ecosystems as they occasionally feed on carrion, helping keep the water clean. They lay eggs by digging into the soft sand at the edge of the river and their breeding season is between July-November.

Freshwater turtles suffer from loss of nesting habitats due to sand mining and human encroachment. Illegal wildlife trade is also a substantial threat where they are either sold as pets or for meat in markets. As per a report released by TRAFFIC in 2019, over 1 lakh freshwater turtles and tortoises were poached in illegal trade in the last decade. Needless to say, the report also states that a large volume of trade goes undetected or unreported.

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