A bale of red-eared sliders cling to a rock in a glass aquarium; a few more paddle languidly around the rock, sending out concentric ripples. In this December 2019 video taken at Aqua Exotic, a pet shop in Bengaluru’s Banashakari locality, aquarium blogger Syed Shah says each turtle costs only ₹300. He reaches into the tank, picks up one—the size of a small matchbox—and holds it between two fingers. The animal flails helplessly, looking especially vulnerable in the dim store lighting, making it hard to believe that IUCN classifies this benign-looking turtle as one of the “World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species”, one which can take over ecosystems and push out native species.
Over the last few years, red-eared sliders—native to the US’ Mississippi river basin—have been spotted in freshwater bodies across India, including Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Gujarat and the North-East states. Most often, they are released by people who bought them as pets, little realising perhaps the care such wild animals need. This September, The Hindu reported that one turtle was discovered in the Malankara dam in Kerala’s Idukki district, worrying officials at the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI), which is preparing a report proposing a ban on the trade in red-eared sliders. They have also told pet owners who don’t want to keep the reptiles to hand them over to the KFRI instead of releasing them into water bodies. “We have collected over 150 turtles so far,” T.V. Sajeev, senior principal scientist at the KFRI, tells Lounge.
According to the Smuggling In India Report for 2019-20, the demand for exotic pets has been increasing steadily; 7,685 red-eared sliders were seized in this period. That’s a big number, given that a May 2021 paper, A Looming Exotic Reptile Pet Trade In India: Patterns And Knowledge Gaps, published in the Journal Of Threatened Taxa, notes that “until recently (2007), there were no records of the red-eared slider from India”.
There is still no real estimate of the number of such turtles imported, smuggled in or released into water bodies, or areas where they have begun posing a threat to local ecosystems. The law on exotic pets continues to be ambiguous. But conservationists believe people need to be made aware of the dangers of keeping them as pets—the ethics of taking a reptile out of its natural habitat, the risk of infection, the cost of care—or releasing them into water bodies. Else, they fear, the turtles could end up playing as inimical an invasive role as cane toads in Australia, Giant African Snails in India, Burmese pythons and common carp in the US.
“Once they (the red-eared sliders) get settled in a habitat, they proliferate....,” says Ajay Kartik, a wildlife biologist and herpetologist. “They tend to dominate these ecosystems and outcompete native species in these habitats.” They are already a threat in 75 countries, according to the May 2021 paper.
Red-eared sliders, or Trachemys scripta elegans, are a subspecies of the pond slider, medium-sized semi-aquatic turtles that inhabit freshwater bodies. The name comes from the patch of red on the side of the head. Americans started taking to them in the early to mid-1900s, according to a December 2011 article in the Reptiles magazine. A February 2020 article in National Geographic states that red-eared sliders are now the most popular turtle in the American pet trade, bred on an industrial scale.
In India, they now figure on the list of reptiles coming in as part of the commercial trade in exotic reptiles. “Reptiles are one of the extensively traded groups of vertebrates,” says the May 2021 paper, adding that it’s clear that the undocumented import/export of species is much higher than the numbers reported. Nearly 70 reptile species are traded via Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. Tamil Nadu (10%), Maharashtra (9.7%) and West Bengal (9.3) have the greatest number of traders, notes the paper; Kerala, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh are not far behind.
An official from the Union environment ministry’s Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), who doesn’t want to be named, details how the illegal trade works. Most of these turtles, she says, are bred in China and transported to India via Sri Lanka or Malaysia. Chennai, the official adds, becomes a major transit point for wildlife trafficking, bypassing the requirements of licences, quarantine, etc. that the legal route would mandate.
Kartik recalls seeing consignments of exotic animals, including these turtles, seized by customs or WCCB officials as they were sought to be smuggled in in bottles or suitcases with false bottoms. “They reach the country in a terrible shape,” he says; the mortality rate is high. “By the time they reach a facility that can care for them, they are halfway gone or dead on arrival.”
Once they enter the country, they are sent to pet wholesalers and retailers, says the WCCB official, adding that they are sold for as little as ₹250-300 a turtle. “These creatures have become one of the most common pet animals you can buy,” says Kartik—somewhat like love birds or budgerigars. Usually sold as babies smaller than the palm of one’s hand, they grow fast: an adult female can reach 12 inches. That’s where the problems begin. “Even with poor or moderate care, these turtles grow very fast in the first five or six years of their life,” says Kartik, adding that most people aren’t prepared for the work this entails. “You will have to keep changing their housing to account for this rapid growth rate,” he adds.
Additionally, turtles live relatively long—often 20-30 years—something many pet owners aren’t prepared for. So, they often do what they think is humane: They release their pet into the nearest water body, where it competes with native species for food, water, nesting space and sunlight.
Disease is a very real risk. For, like many reptiles, these turtles can carry the infectious Salmonella bacteria in their digestive tract, skin and shell. “It could cause diseases in the native turtles and humans who keep these turtles as pets,” says Sneha Dharwadkar, an herpetologist and the co-founder of FTTI (Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises of India). There have been multiple records of this infection among turtle owners and their children in the US; infants and toddlers have even died of the infection when they playfully put the turtles in their mouths.
So the experts advise caution before you keep one as a pet. “There is no law that prevents anyone from keeping a non-native wild animal as a pet,” says Kartik. But caring for a wild animal requires an understanding of the animal’s history and behaviour in the wild and their husbandry often requires more time, money and knowledge than the average pet owner has, believes Dharwadkar, adding that pet turtles offer suffer from severe nutritional deficiencies or disease.
Covid-19, with its origins in the wet markets of China, a breeding ground for zoonotic diseases, could be one reason why the authorities are now trying to exercise greater control over the exotic wildlife marketplace. In June 2020, the Union environment ministry announced a voluntary disclosure scheme for owners of exotic animals. By February 2021, it had received 32,645 applications from 25 states and five Union territories, notes a March 2021 report on IndiaSpend.
This may be a beginning but it isn’t enough. Sajeev believes the immediate focus should be on two things: trying to stop the trade in red-eared sliders and surveying freshwater locations and removing them. The more significant change is dependent on people. “The wildlife trade is a demand-driven trade,” says Dharwadkar, adding that unless people stop buying turtles, or any wild animal really, it will not stop. “Even though legally you are allowed to keep an exotic animal not from your country, you are still being unethical,” she emphasises. “You are taking a wild animal out of its natural habitat; you are supporting the wildlife trade and you are dooming an animal to a life it wasn’t meant to live.”