By Kondwani Magombo
Turtles in the shore areas of Lake Malawi are being butchered in hundreds and smuggled to outside markets for their shells and skin, Malawi News Agency (Mana) has established.
Lilongwe Society for Protection and Care for Animals (LSPCA) and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife confirmed the development in separate interviews saying the development contravenes the National Parks and Wildlife Act of 2004.
LSPCA Public Relations Officer, Sophie Gomani, told Mana that they had received reports on the development and that the Society, in conjunction with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife and other stakeholders, was conducting awareness campaign in the lakeshore districts on the illegality of the practice.
"We received reports from members of the public who had witnessed mass butchering of turtles along Lake Malawi," said Gomani. "LSPCA, in conjunction with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife officials engaged in public awareness campaign funded by Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) aimed at warning people against the practice."
She said the campaign targeted the people living in the districts of Nkhatabay, Nkhotakota, Salima, Mangochi, Monkey bay, Liwonde and Zomba because of their proximity to Malawi's main water bodies of Lake Malawi, Lake Malombe, Lake Chilwa, Chia lagoon, and the Shire River.
Gomani said the sensitization had been successful and that the team had visited several villages and got to hear from fishermen who carried out the illegal trade and why they did it.
"One of the major findings was that most Malawians involved in this trade are not aware of the existence of the National Parks and Wildlife Act or Animal Protection Act, 1970. Hence there is need for more regular awareness campaigns on such issues," explained Gomani.
Director for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, Bright Kumchedwa, disclosed in a separate interview that findings indicated that the butchered turtles from Lake Malawi were smuggled to as far as South East Asia.
Kumchedwa explained: "Locally, there are areas in the country that consume turtle meat; however it is the increase in international demand for expensive turtle products such as shells and skin that is putting the existence of this species in harm's way.
"Some turtles are also accidentally caught by fishermen when trapped in the fishing nets and rather than letting them go, most of them are slaughtered or traded for money to middlemen who supply the South East Asian Market."
Kumchedwa stressed that turtles are protected species under the National Parks and Wildlife Act and that hunting, selling or transferring of a protected species is liable to a fine of K100, 000 and imprisonment of 10 years, and seizure of boats and nets by government. He warned that if left unchecked, the killings of the reptiles would result in reduction of their population within a short period of time and this, the Director observed, would impact negatively on human beings.
"Turtles are very important to our communities," said Kumchedwa, "They eat bilharzia-carrying snails thereby helping reduce cases of bilharzia and their extinction would lead to a bilharzia outbreak all around Lake Malawi."
"An increase of bilharzia may result in reduced tourism activities which in the long run would impact negatively on the economic growth of the country."
According to Kumchedwa and Gomani, the sensitization of the communities on the act would soon be on radio.