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ENVIRONMENT-PAKISTAN: Exports Threaten Freshwater Turtle. By Muddassir Rizvi

ISLAMABAD, Aug 27 (IPS) - Freshwater turtles in Pakistan are threatened as the government promotes their export, ignoring international obligations, to feed East Asian palates, say conservationists.

The government is accused of letting commercial interests prevail over environmental concerns and even keeping its own wildlife conservation wing in the dark.

While conservation officials say they do not know of such a trade, commerce officials say turtle exporters are being offered incentives to step up their business.

According to wildlife experts, the turtle exports violate Pakistan's obligations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). ''Freshwater turtles in Pakistan are at risk...the government should ban their trade,'' said Fakhar Abbas, who is specialising in wildlife conservation.

Pakistan has at least eight freshwater turtle and two tortoise species, which are found in the Punjab and North West Frontier provinces. The spotted pond turtle, crowned river turtle and Afghan tortoise are some well known species, which are included in the IUCN Red Data Book's List of Internationally Threatened Species.

Freshwater turtles have become a ''hot export item'' say media reports, with Pakistani exporters having orders worth millions of U.S. dollars from South-east and East Asian countries.

''The bulk of turtle exports are destined for Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan,'' said an official at the government's Export Promotion Bureau (EPB).

''With EPB's intervention, the government has recently removed export duty on turtle exports,'' the official added.

Local entrepreneurs in northern Punjab realised the export value of freshwater turtles in the early 1990s when workers of South Korean company 'Daewoo' came there to build a six-lane highway.

Turtle export has now become a major industry. Many locals have taken up turtle catching as a full time job, working for various exporters for rates as low as Rs 15 (20 U.S. cents) per catch.

According to media reports, exporters can earn 2.5 dollars for a baby turtle. Turtle leather and shell are also in demand, but the main value is the meat, which is considered a delicacy.

However, the government's National Council for Wildlife Conservation (NCCW), is ignorant of the turtle exports from Pakistan. ''We are not aware of any such trade, neither have we issued any No Objection Certificate for the export of turtles to any private party,'' said a deputy conservator at the NCCW.

The NCCW official confirmed that Pakistan cannot allow turtle trade in any form because of CITES. ''A no objection certificate from NCCW is necessary before any private party trade in wildlife,'' he said.

Pakistan, along with other Asian nations, is also under pressure from the West to save the turtle.

Four years ago, the country was one of 48 nations, which faced a U.S. embargo on their shrimp exports. The United States argued that every year more than 125,000 turtles die because shrimp trawlers inadvertently haul in turtles.

Because of this, few turtles can survive till the age of reproduction. In 1998, Pakistan, India, Malaysia and Thailand successfully challenged the U.S. trade ban in the World Trade Organisation's (WTO's) Dispute Settlement Body.

These countries pleaded they had several conservation programmes that included the collection and incubation of turtle eggs and the release of baby sea turtles. India, Pakistan and Thailand also maintained that their cultures embraced a traditional belief that it was sinful to kill sea turtles.

However, Pakistani conservationists say that while Pakistan may have taken steps for sea turtle conservation, nothing has been done to save the freshwater species, which is found in the country's canals, numerous lakes and rivers.

They advise setting up of turtle farms, without which freshwater turtle s would soon disappear from the country. The government has not even carried out a freshwater turtle census, they say.

According to wildlife expert Umeed Khalid, who works with the NCCW, none of the wildlife conservation laws in Pakistan's provinces, where turtles are found, provide protection to turtles.

Environmentalists say that Pakistan should review its conservation laws in the light of the country's international obligations. ''Unless we learn to respect our environmental obligations, the official promises of sustainable development will remain hollow,'' said Abbas. (END/IPS/ap- en/mr/mu/00)