Euphrates softshell turtle threatened with extinction in Iran

June 2, 2019

TEHRAN – Euphrates softshell turtle is endangered in the country mainly due to habitat loss and low precipitation, environmental expert Asghar Mobaraki told YJC on Friday.

The Euphrates softshell turtle (Rafetus euphraticus), also known as the Mesopotamian softshell turtle, is a species of softshell turtle in the family Trionychidae. It is found throughout much of the Euphrates–Tigris river basin in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iranian Khuzestan province. 

This freshwater turtle can weigh up to 20 kg (44 pounds), and it has a smooth leathery shell that can reach up to 68 cm (2.2 fit) in length. They are mainly found in a wide range of freshwater habitats such as rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, reservoirs, and marshlands.

Despite its endangered status, there are no specific conservations projects aimed at saving this species in most of its range, Mobaraki stated.

According to the IUCN anthropogenic fragmentation, alteration, and destruction of suitable habitat throughout its range are the main threats to Rafetus euphraticus.

When basking on land they are very shy, retreating to water at the slightest hint of danger, therefore, estimating their population is difficult, he explained.

Referring to ways available to estimate the population of the species, he noted that determining an exact number of the remaining species requires advanced equipment as well as fund.

In the past that water level in major lakes and wetlands were lower, we could determine the species distribution, however, with recent heavy rainfalls, water level has increased and we are no longer able to count them, he also added.

He went on to say that in 1350s to 1360s (1971-1991), Euphrates softshell turtles had a stable population in the Shadegan wetland in Khuzestan province, while their population gradually shrank.

In past recent years, their population was shrinking due to low precipitation and recurrent drought haunting Khuzestan province, he regretted.

Although the primary threats are habitat loss and fragmentation, to lesser extent also pollution is to blame, he stated, adding, some lakes have been contaminated as waste and poisonous sewage enters them.

In some cases, they are killed by fishermen due to being carnivorous and caught on fishing hooks, he further regretted, concluding, fishing nets, illegal boats, and dams which alter levels of sediment and water temperature, are among the other major threats to the species in the country.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed Euphrates softshell turtle as engendered assessing its population in 2016. 

Threats in detail 

According to the IUCN anthropogenic fragmentation, alteration, and destruction of suitable habitat throughout its range are the main threats to Rafetus euphraticus. 

Major dams cause fundamental changes to water quality and the flow regime downstream, making it impossible for R. euphraticus to survive in long downstream riverine stretches. The loss of sandbank nesting habitat through flooding and sand mining is also a serious threat.

The use of pesticides in agricultural fields next to riverbanks causes pollution along the tributaries. 

Additionally the draining of the Mesopotamian Marshes in southeastern coastal Iraq and southwestern Iran after the 1991 Gulf War is likely to have impacted Iraqi populations significantly. Animals accidentally caught by fishermen may be killed as perceived competitors, and nests destroyed. 

In Iraq, various wars and political conflicts, drought, dam construction, unsustainable fishing methods, especially electro-fishing, and the use of poisons and explosive materials are the main concerns for Rafetus survival. 

Furthermore, oil development, especially in southern Iraq and gravel mining in northern rivers threatens R. euphraticus populations. 

No information is available on threats to R. euphraticus in Syria, where it occupies territories under severe political unrest and turmoil. 

The Chinese Soft Shell, Pelodiscus sinensis, has been imported into Iran illegally and has the potential to become a competitor for R. euphraticus.

FB/MQ/MG

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