First evidence of a living Leatherback turtle along Pakistan’s coastline, rescued by local fishermen

Karachi: A group of fishermen caught a large leatherback turtles at Gwadar near Surbandar village on Tuesday and in order to get this leatherback turtle free from their net, they beached it. WWF Pakistan staff helped in the rescue and safe release of this turtle back into the sea.

The Leatherback turtle Dermochelys coriacea is the largest marine turtle, rather largest reptile is mostly widely distributed in Indian, Pacific and Indian Ocean including North Sea. In the Arabian Sea, it is known from India, Oman, UAE and Yemen but is rarest of all species of turtles in the area. Leatherback turtle can grow up to 900 kg and has a teardrop shaped body.

Along the coast of Pakistan five species of marine turtles are reported to occur which include green, oliveridley, hawksbill, loggerhead and leatherback turtles. Of these, leatherback is considered to be most rare species occurring along the coast of Pakistan and indeed globally they are one of the most endangered species of marine turtles. Previously there were a number of reports about occurrence of leatherback from Pakistan but no living turtle was ever recorded from the country.

Rab Nawaz, Director WWF Pakistan has considered the report of leatherback turtle as good omen for the biodiversity in Pakistan. He pointed out that WWF Pakistan has recently located a large population of oliveridley turtles from offshore waters of Pakistan which was thought to be extinct from the area.

Abdul Rahim, Coordinator, WWF Pakistan at Gwadar who has played an important role in releasing this turtle, appreciated the role of fishermen who have sacrificed their expensive gillnet about Rs.14,000 in an effort to safely release the species. He pointed out that there is an increased awareness among the fishermen for the protection of marine turtles due to efforts of WWF Pakistan’s Pakistan Wetland Program. Fishermen now safely release turtle if they are enmeshed in their gillnets and other fishing gears and do not fling the turtle as used to be done previously.

Nawaz further informed that WWF Pakistan with the support of the provincial wildlife department has been involved in turtle conservation and awareness program along Sindh and Balochistan coasts for almost two decades. Previously a dead leatherback turtle was recorded from Pushukan near Gwadar in 2002. He pointed out that the leatherback turtle has survived for more than a hundred million years, but is now facing extinction. Recent estimates of numbers show that this species is declining precipitously throughout its range of distribution. He stressed the need for all stakeholders including fishermen, Wildlife Departments and NGOs to take necessary steps for protection of turtles mainly nesting beaches need to be monitored and patrolled for controlling disturbances and feeding by scavengers including feral dogs.

Muhammad Moazzam Khan, Technical Adviser Marine Fisheries WWF Pakistan has pointed out that since leatherback solely feed on jellyfishes, its occurrence in Pakistan may be on account of recurrence of jellyfish blooms in the coastal areas. He pointed out that the global population of this species was estimated to be 115,000 adult females in 1982. By 1996 this had been revised down to about 3040,000. Leatherback populations in the Indian Ocean have undergone dramatic declines in the past forty years. The nesting colony at 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.

Nawaz further elaborated that since WWF consider leatherback to a priority species, therefore, it has initiated a number of programs globally to protect nesting beaches and near shore habitats by establishing and strengthening sanctuaries and wildlife refuges, raise awareness so that local communities will protect turtles and their nests and reduce by catch in fishing gears.