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Rare leatherback turtle found dead in Sonmiani

Posted on 18 November 2016

Karachi, A specimen of a rare marine leatherback turtle was found dead in Miani Hor lagoon near Sonmiani, Lasbela district, Balochistan on Thursday, 17 November. Muhammad Ilyas, fisherman and member of the Coastal Association for Research and Development-Balochistan (CARD-Balochistan) observed the carcass of a turtle floating in the lagoon water and photographed it. It may be a coincidence that the carcass was noticed at spring high tide (12:30 PM) when excessive water inundation was taking place due to the super moon. The turtle was measured to be about 1.4 m long and had peeled skin on its carapace.

According to Muhammad Moazzam Khan, Technical Advisor, WWF-Pakistan, the scars on the carapace indicate that the turtle died due to a boat strike. According to him, the leatherback turtle is among the rarest of marine turtles in Pakistan and recent studies reveal that this species is declining precipitously throughout its distribution range, including Pakistan. Moazzam Khan further pointed out that since leatherbacks solely feed on jellyfishes, its occurrence in Miani Hor is of great interest because this lagoon is known to have rich jellyfish resources. Annually about 1,500 m. tonnes of jellyfish are harvested and processed in Damb and Sonmiani. Jellyfish blooms in the area are of regular occurrence and this is possibly the reason why the turtle was attracted to the area but was unfortunately struck by a boat, killing it.

Five species of marine turtles are reported to occur along the coast of Pakistan which include green, olive-ridley, hawksbill, loggerhead and leatherback turtles. Of these, leatherbacks are considered to be rarest species. Globally, they are considered vulnerable according to the IUCN Red List of threatened species. Previously, there were six authentic reports of its confirmed occurrence in Pakistani waters. Two dead leatherback turtles were reported by the Sindh Wildlife Department in the 1980s from the coast of Karachi whereas one dead turtle was reported from Gwadar (West Bay) in 2012. For the first time a live turtle became entangled in a net on 16 April 2013 when a group of fishermen operating monofilament gillnet caught a large leatherback turtle in Gwadar near Surbandar village. The turtle was safely released by WWF-Pakistan staff. The second giant live leatherback turtle was again caught in gillnet in Surbandar, Gwadar which was also released back in waters. While, the third leatherback turtle was entangled in tuna gillnets near Ghora Bari offshore waters on 22 October 2016, which was released after a very long struggle.

It is believed that leatherback turtles are highly migratory and make really long migrations across the Oceans which make them prone to be hit by boats/ships. However, they also dwell in deeper waters which make them vulnerable to be caught in pelagic fisheries as well as demersal and benthic trawling.

Anward Mundra, Member Board of Directors of CARD-Balochistan pointed out that fishermen consider marine turtles sacred animals and do not catch or disturb them. ‘They try to avoid fishing in the area known for turtle feeding or nesting,’ he added. While, Abdul Qayyum, Chairman CARD-Balochistan pointed out that the coastal community living around Maini Hor is conservationist by nature and it is possibly the only area where natural resources are co-managed by the community with support of the government. He further pointed out that the Maini Hor community has imposed a strict ban on mangrove cutting as well as use of harmful fishing gear. It is the only area of Pakistan where use of Bhulla net (Estuarine Set Bag Net) is completely banned. This devastating net plays havoc with fish larvae and juveniles in the creeks of Sindh. Qayyum lauded the role of WWF-Pakistan in creating awareness about the sustainable management of natural resources in Miani Hor.

Rab Nawaz, Senior Director Programmes, WWF-Pakistan stressed the need for all stakeholders including fishermen, Wildlife Departments and NGOs to take necessary steps for the protection of turtles. He pointed out that nesting beaches need to be monitored and patrolled in order to control disturbances and feeding by scavengers including feral dogs. He added that the global population of this species was estimated to be 115,000 adult females in 1982. By 1996 it had reduced to about 30-40,000. Leatherback populations in the Indian Ocean have undergone dramatic decline in the past 40 years.  The nesting colony in Terengganu, Malaysia went from more than 3,000 females in 1968, to 20 in 1993, to just 2 recorded recently - there are no signs of recovery. Rab Nawaz further elaborated that since WWF considers leatherbacks a priority species, therefore, it has initiated a number of programmes globally to protect nesting beaches and near shore habitats by establishing and strengthening sanctuaries and wildlife refuges. Further, it raises awareness among local communities so that they protect turtles and their nests and reduce by-catch in fishing gears.

WWF-Pakistan

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