It's the largest bust of its kind in India, and it involves several tonnes of turtles.

Earlier this week, Indian police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh found 6,430 Indian flapshell turtles stuffed into jute sacks and stashed in the back of a large truck. The hapless animals were bound for the city of Kolkata, where they would then be shipped off to foreign ports in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Hong Kong and China.

Fortunately for the turtles, the Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force, headed by Arvind Chaturvedi, stepped in – and made history in the process.

"Wildlife authorities confirmed that this is the largest haul in the country's wildlife history, both in terms of number and weight – 4.4 tonnes," Chaturvedi told AFP. He added that the "kingpin" of the turtle-smuggling operation had been apprehended, though some of the culprits were still at large.

Indian flapshell turtles (Lissemys punctata) are sold on the black market for the purported aphrodisiac quality of their meat. Their bones, meanwhile, are ground into a powder and added to local traditional medicines and soups.

According to the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), trade is brisk: Indian flapshells can sell for up to 1,000 rupees (approximately $15) per animal. And the flapshells aren't the only coveted species. The Indian softshell turtle (Nilssonia gangetica), whose meat is considered a delicacy, is also regularly poached, fetching prices of up to 8,000 rupees (approximately $117).

An Indian flapshell turtle at the Bannerghatta Rehabilitation Centre in Bangalore, India. (L. Shyamal/Wikimedia Commons)

Though neither species is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, both are protected under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act. Despite this status, considerable poaching risk remains, according to TSA spokesperson Rachna Tiwari. "Enforcement against poaching has improved, but the scale at which these protected turtles are being poached, who knows, they may also soon become endangered," Tiwari told AFP.

Indeed, despite major busts like this one, illegal trade has reached alarming levels. According to TSA spokesperson Arunima Singh, when all commonly trafficked turtles in India are accounted for – including the Indian flapshell, softshell, roofed and black turtles – the numbers reach well into the thousands in Uttar Pradesh alone.

"We estimate that at least 20,000 are being smuggled out of [Uttar Pradesh] every year," Singh told the Daily Mail.

Uttar Pradesh is home to 14 of the 28 turtle species considered endangered in India, so further efforts at curbing poaching are essential. The rescued flapshells, meanwhile, are currently living in a makeshift sanctuary created in one of TSA's local centres.


Top header image: Sumeet Moghe, Flickr