By Farnaz Heidari

Will extinction vortex swallow the Euphrates softshell turtle?

October 31, 2016

Counting how many species live on Earth is a difficult challenge. The researchers estimated that there exist possibly between five million to one trillion species out there. About 1.7 million of these have been described by taxonomists which constitutes to only 13% of the whole species.

Counting how many species live on Earth is a difficult challenge. The researchers estimated that there exist possibly between five million to one trillion species out there. About 1.7 million of these have been described by taxonomists which constitutes to only 13% of the whole species.

Why is this scandalous? Let’s have an example, if economists only know 13% of the economic situation in the world, what would happen? It is quite symptomatic of greater issues, many countries would be outraged. A similar situation goes onto the field of biodiversity too. World Wide Fund for nature (WWF) said if there are 100,000,000 different species on Earth and the extinction rate is just 0.01% per year, at least 10,000 species go extinct every year. We all know extinction is a natural process but as WWF illustrated the rapid loss of species we are seeing today is estimated by experts to be between 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. There is only one word for this parade of shattered biodiversity shrinking: grim.

Starting with the increasing pace of wildlife interest in Iran and publishing a raft of surveys in scientific journals, we understand some grim issues are raising in our country too.

The Tehran Times had an interview with Dr. Hanyeh Ghaffari from University of Kurdestan in Sanandaj, Kurdestan province, who has been working more than 15 years on Euphrates softshell turtle Rafetus euphraticusas an endangered species of Iran in particular.

She contributed to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) /the Species Survival Commission (SSC) Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle specialist group on a Compilation Project of Conservation Biology of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises. Her works refers directly to the Euphrates softshell turtle status and conservation in Iran.

Below is the text of the interview.

Q: Why did Euphrates softshell turtle first spark your interest?

A: The answer to this question goes back to 2001, when I was looking for a topic for my BSc. thesis. At that time, professor Theodore J. Papenfuss came from Berkeley University of California to Iran to work on reptiles of the Middle East. He suggested that I work on Euphrates softshell turtle since no definitive studies or conservation work had been done until then in Iran. It was my first step that encouraged me to take an interest in Euphrates softshell turtle as an endangered species. I first developed an interest in just Euphrates softshell turtles but my interest soon switched to the whole ecosystem that they live because you cannot save a species without knowing its environment. It is a term we considered as Ecosystem Approach, a strategy for integrated management and conservation.  

Q: Would you please point to some key data’s of this species?

A: The Euphrates softshell turtle, Rafetus euphraticus belongs to the Trionychidae Family, its distribution is limited to the Euphrates and Tigris River basins in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. This species are listed as Endangered in the Red list of IUCN and it was recently (October 2016) listed on CITES Appendix II as Rafetus genus.

Q: Why this species is important?

A: All species are important and esteemed since each species is part of the chain life and expelling each part has significant negative effects on the Earth. The particular diet of Euphrates softshell has somehow turned it into an efficient sweeper of the river. This species help to clean the river ecosystems. Since it has no natural hunter except human beings, Euphrates softshell turtle was placed in the apex of food chain. Euphrates softshell turtles bring a bounty of benefits to both our own health and river ecosystems, so the more we change their habitat, the more they become endangered.

Q: What are the main treats of the last few individuals?

A: Anthropogenic fragmentation, alteration, and suitable habitat loss throughout its range are the main threats to Euphrates softshell turtle. In addition, construction of numerous dams has dramatically changed the remaining natural habitats of this endangered turtle.

Q: Is there any chance that could bring the probability of extinction down?

A: There is still hope, let's try to be optimistic.

Participatory conservation projects for the species are essential to its long-term survival. At country level, the Iranian, Iraqi, Turkish and Syrian governments should develop their national laws for Euphrates soft-shelled turtle. Furthermore, they should develop action plans for conservation of the turtle.

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