Marine turtle species are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of threatened species. They have been given priority for conservation through various International Conventions and agreements such as Convention of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), The African Convention on Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
Pakistan is a signatory to CITES and all marine turtle species have been declared “Protected” by Law in Sindh under Sindh Wildlife Protection Ordinance of 1972 and in Baluchistan under Baluchistan Wildlife Protection Act 1974 amended in 1977.
The beaches of Karachi along the Arabian Sea in Pakistan offer a hospitable environment to marine turtles as they are important nesting and feeding grounds and included among major tropical and subtropical turtle beaches in the world. The coastal areas in Sindh stretch up to 200 miles with sandy, rocky and muddy seashores. The rocky shores at Boleji, Paradise Point and Capemonz are turtle feeding grounds as seaweed or marine algae are found attached in the littoral zone with these rocks-an staple food items of these herbivorous species. The beaches next to the rocky feeding grounds are the sandy shores of Hawkes Bay and Sandspit - the suitable nesting sites. The beaches of Baluchistan namely Gwadar, Ormara, Pusni, Jewani and Astola Island are also important turtle beaches.
Among seven species in the world only two are found nesting along the beaches of Hawkes Bay and Sandspit. These are Green and Olive Ridley turtles. Dead specimens of Leatherback turtles have also been washed ashore.
The Sindh Wildlife Department is a pioneer in Pakistan with reference to the implementation of projects for the protection, and conservation of marine turtles in Karachi at Sandspit and Hawkes Bay.
The Government of Sindh, in collaboration with IUCN and WWF International, started a pilot project in 1980 for protection of marine turtles with the main objectives of conservation, management, research and education. Since 1983 financial assistance for the project has only been received from provincial Government. Turtle eggs from open beaches are transplanted in protected enclosures on the same beaches and then released to the sea, saving them from land predators. Female turtles, after laying eggs or when returning to the sea without laying eggs, are measured and tagged for observation of their migratory routes and nesting frequency.
Project Description and Results
Marine turtles leave the sea for nesting at night. They drag themselves onto the sandy shore and dig out big holes with the help of their powerful front flippers and then scoop out sand with their rear flippers to make a 3 ft deep narrow, cylindrical nest for laying eggs. Each female lays about 100 eggs at a time in one clutch. These eggs are white, round and soft in texture and whilst laying eggs the turtle sheds tears to remove excess salt concentration from her body. When she is finished laying her eggs, she covers the nest with sand using her back flippers. Then she crawls back to the sea leaving a distinguishable track behind her. At this point the eggs are excavated, counted, weighed, measured, collected and carried to the protected enclosures by Sindh Wildlife Department staff, to save them from predators, mainly dogs and poachers.
The eggs are buried in the sand at the same depth at which they were laid by the mother. The nest is then covered by a wire mesh bearing a serial number for record.
From October 1979 when the sea turtle conservation project was established, to December 2004, 2000,000 eggs have been protected in 22,700 nests.
The baby turtles or hatchlings emerge after an incubation period of two months. The hatchlings are collected from the nests, examined, measured, counted and released on the sand away from the strong waves.
This helps them to walk down to the sea and to recognise the beach which will be imprinted as a natural instinct. But once they go in water, many natural predators await them. These include ghost crabs and shore birds. Only 0.1% to 0.2% of hatchlings survive to reach maturity after 12-15 years.
A total of 627,800 hatchlings have been released safely to the sea under the conservation project. To minimise the mortality rate of hatchlings, a captive rearing programme will be carried out as soon as the construction of laboratory is completed at Hawkes Bay.
Turtles are also examined for diseases and parasites. Leeches of the species Ozobranchus sp. are usually found attached with their neck, eyes and other soft parts as ectoparasites.
Egg laying is observed throughout the year and each female lays three times in one season. However, September, October and November is the peak season. After nesting, monel metal tags are applied to both front flippers by wildlife officials to monitor its migration pattern and nesting frequency. Each tag carries a unique tag number, a “W”code for Pakistan and a return address.
From August 1982 when tagging was started, up to December 2004, 5941 turtles have been tagged and 631 have been recovered. Three turtles were recovered from abroad (India, Iran and Africa). Turtles are also measured with flexible tape and vernier calipers for curved and straight-line carapace length and breadth respectively. Normally a green turtle is 3.5 ft long and 3 ft broad and weighs about 300 lbs. Satellite transmitters were installed on two green turtles during 2001 and their migratory routes were observed.
Future and ongoing Project Proposal
Recently a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between WWF Pakistan and the Sindh Wildlife Department for mutual cooperation in the field of conservation including marine turtles.
With regards to Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), the Sindh Chief Secretary, Mohammad Aslam Sanjrani, visited Karachi Fish Harbor in April 2005 to inspect the operation
of TEDs and their performance.
The Director General of the Marine Fisheries Department, Commodore Qamar Raza, told him that TEDs were introduced to the country six years ago and had helped to alleviate the extinction threat to turtles.
Community education is an important aspect of this project and the Sindh Wildlife Department has produced postage stamps, posters, brochures, stickers, greeting cards, T-shirts, sign boards and information boards. Lectures and talks are also delivered to educational and cultural organisations, followed by documentary films and slide shows.
Guided tours to the beaches are also organised for tourists, students and public to make them aware of conservation of these species and protection of our natural heritage in Pakistan particularly along the Karachi coast.
Recently a project proposal has been submitted to the Government of Sindh for achieving the following main objectives:
• Maintenance of marine turtle research laboratory at Hawkes Bay;
• Strict implementation and strengthening of existing legislation;
• Transplantation of eggs in protected enclosures and safe release of hatchlings to the sea;
• Identification of turtle nesting and feeding grounds along Pakistan coast;
• Captive breeding of hatchlings to increase the rate of survival and protection from predators to first year of their lives;
• Study of their migration pattern and population by tagging of adults and hatchlings;
• Identification of predators;
• Sex determination of hatchlings in relation to temperature;
• Identification of parasites and treatment of diseased turtles;
• Study the effect of pollution on marine turtles;
• Observation of tagging turtles and dissemination of such information to the concerned agencies;
• Coordination and cooperation with national and international organisations engaged in the same type of project; and
• Education and awareness of students and masses about turtle conservation through print and electronic media.