PAKISTAN

Muhammad Moazzam# & Aisha Hamera

WWF-Pakistan, Karachi, Pakistan

#mmoazzamkhan@gmail.com

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The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a major lockdown in Pakistan. There have been some positive outcomes for biodiversity and conservation, including local marine turtle populations, from this response. Adjacent to the metropolis city of Karachi in the Sindh Province are two major nesting beaches- Sandspit and Hawksbay- which are usually thronged by large numbers of picnickers. However, the beaches have been deserted since the last week of March 2020 because of the national lockdown. The peak visiting period is usually between March and September, which overlaps with the peak turtle nesting period from July to December (although nesting may occur year-round). Previously, high human presence on these beaches has disturbed nesting turtles by trampling the nests, damaged eggs after opening the nest and leaving it exposed to sun, scavengers and predators, and disrupted the seaward movement of emerged hatchlings by blocking their movement or picking them up and releasing them when the hatchlings are exhausted. The amount of solid waste pollution, which may be an obstacle for nesting turtles and hatchlings, has also reduced during the lockdown. A similar situation has prevailed on other beaches along the Sindh coast and on Astola Island in the Balochistan Province, where security forces did not allow fishing or tourist boats to visit.

However, the situation is different elsewhere in the Balochistan Province. The number of people visiting Daran Beach at Jiwani substantially increased during the lockdown, due to low compliance with the order for restricted movement, and could have affected sea turtles and hatchlings as it did in Karachi However, a major portion of Daran beach was extensively eroded by Cyclone Kyarr in late October of 2019, and it has not yet been reestablished by wave and tidal action; no turtles have been reported nesting since November 2019. Therefore, nesting turtles and hatchlings at Daran have not been impacted by the lockdown.

Despite strict control of the Sindh Wildlife Department, a small illegal trade of turtle hatchlings in pet shops, aquaria and the Sunday pet market occurs in Karachi. Hatchlings are removed from the nests along the Karachi and Balochistan coast and are illegally sold in these outlets. Since all markets have been completely closed during the lockdown, no such illegal sales have occurred since the last week of March 2020.

The government imposed a ban on fishing as part of the lockdown along the entire coast of Pakistan since the last week of March till mid May 2020, and this has presumably reduced the threat of entanglement in fishing gear, subsequent injury or mortality, and disturbance to foraging areas. Partial fishing operations (daytime fishing only and within 5 nautical miles of the coastline) recommenced in mid-April. However, the annual two month closed season for shrimp trawling and tuna gillnetting in the Sindh Province along with a total fishing ban in the Balochistan Province will be in place from the 1st June to 31st July, 2020, and hence will provide additional protection for turtle populations in the coastal and offshore waters of Pakistan.