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The Asian Turtle Crisis

We are currently witnessing the greatest loss of species since the demise of the dinosaurs. Reptiles are amongst those species that are being worst hit. Turtles and other reptiles have been on earth for over 200 million years, outliving dinosaurs, yet turtles are now facing their own extinction crisis. In Asia, people traditionally regard turtles as symbols of longevity, stability, and strength. In Chinese mythology, the tortoise is one of four celestial beasts that was present at the creation of the universe. Having to face many challenges in their long history, turtles are losing the battle against their latest adversary, humans are wiping them out.

We have all heard of the conservation efforts to save our marine turtle species and thankfully the majority of these species are slowly making recoveries in some areas. However, there is very little coverage or concern over the plight of our planets freshwater and terrestrial turtle species. They may not be as big or as elegant as marine turtles, but they should be given the same concern.

Some 350 species of tortoises and freshwater turtles exist on earth. The IUCN Red List of Threatened species includes evaluations of 212 of these. Of these species 30 are listed as critically endangered, 42 endangered, 59 vulnerable and 43 near threatened. The ones that are not listed are more than likely to have threatened populations as there is insufficient data on the species to even classify them. The fact is our planets turtle populations are in cascade, we are losing species so fast that we do not even have accurate knowledge about species biology or habitat.

An example of how bad the situation is can be seen with the Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). This turtle species has only three remaining individuals. One is in Vietnam and two are in a zoo in China where they are trying to breed the male and last remaining female. Unfortunately no viable eggs have been produced so far, some think the male may be too old to reproduce. Surveys are being conducted across the entire former range of the species in hope of locating more. The plight of this species highlights the lack of coverage for this less desirable creatures.

So why are turtle species in such trouble? To start with a turtle’s biology and life strategy that has helped the species to life for so long is no match for humans. The defensive strategy of hiding inside their shell when in danger actually makes it easier for humans to collect the turtles. Furthermore, turtles evolved a life strategy characterized by slow growth and late maturity (usually between 10-15 years) with very low survivorship of eggs and juveniles. The idea is once they are fully grown they can live for a long time and modestly reproduce but very few juveniles reach this mature state. The few that make it to adulthood only have a few predators, but one of them is a super-predator: humans. Increases in annual adult mortality (via humans) can rapidly cause populations to decline or collapse due to the length of time it takes for species to reproduce.

Humans are causing enormous strain on the populations of all turtle species. One of the major problems is the destruction and degradation of the turtle’s natural habitat. As the countries of South East Asia are developing economically and population wise, the natural ecosystems and resources are being rapidly depleted. Humans need space to expand infrastructure, which means destroying natural areas. Biodiverse forests and lowland waterways are being drastically altered to favour human expansion.

Following on, structures such as dams are altering water ways by changing the height and turbidity of the water. Changes in the waterways result in loss of submerged aquatic plant growth and a reduction in aquatic organisms, both are food for turtles. Mining on the water’s edge results in high levels of mercury contamination of the river system, turtles can bio-accumulate these chemicals leading to developmental abnormalities. The incidence of commercial riverine sand mining is growing across the region, destroying the nesting habitat for many river turtles in Asia. As humans alter the planets natural habitats, the animals have nowhere else to go, they perish along with their habitat.

Furthermore, the most alarming challenge Asia’s turtle species are facing is that of illegal collection and consumption. Throughout history turtles have been consumed by locals. However, turtles have now become a much more sought after commodity and even a ‘luxury’ product. The collection of turtles at the current scale is incredibly unsustainable. The destination for the majority of trafficked turtles is China.

New found wealth in China has increased the demand for ‘luxury’ products. Tens of tones (around 13 million animals) of live turtle are being shipped to Chinese markets every day. The use of turtle products is varied. Softshell turtles are prized as the main ingredient in gourmet soup, eating turtle is an ancient tradition. Turtles are also used in many medicine’s, the belief is that turtle parts can cure cancer, act as aphrodisiacs, speed difficult childbirths and imbue overall vitality. Many East Asian athletes ingest turtle blood to boost their performances, Wang Junxia the 10,000-meter record setter vows turtle blood helped her win her race.

The consumption of turtle products is ancient, however now the Chinese population has boomed China has run out of turtles, this has led to turtles from all over South East Asia being taken to China. There has also been a rise in the number of turtles and tortoises being sold for the high-end pet industry, not just in Asia but also in Europe and North America. The increased demand for rare and unique freshwater turtles and tortoises has been noted by an increased number of juvenile specimens illegally imported to Asia from countries such as Madagascar.

Turtles from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and across Asia are illegally taken and shipped to Chinese markets. Turtles are speared, netted, trapped, caught with hook and line or hunted by dogs for collection. They are then loaded into trucks or trains to be sent across borders. Often transported in terrible conditions being starved, dehydrated, injured and often arrive dead.

Unfortunately smuggling is a very profitable business. Most turtles sell for U.S. $1.50-$32 per pound – in a region where the average income is just a few hundred dollars per year, it is hard to resist temptation. Typically, collectors are poor villagers or fishermen who sell their catch to dealers who funnel turtles into sophisticated trade networks. Smugglers follow the same routes as drugs and weapons, relying on clandestine border crossings where bribery is welcome and enforcement is lax.

Fines are generally imposed on traders caught smuggling wildlife. They are assessed by the weight and value of the animals seized. In most cases, the impracticality of release and lack of feasible and acceptable alternatives more than often result in the protection authorities returning the animals back to the market or traders, not helping the crisis.

It is also extremely difficult for inspectors to identify restricted species, to most border guards ‘a turtle is a turtle’. To help wildlife officers identify at-risk animals, herpetologists have compiled field guides in many languages. However, even armed with proper information, regulatory agencies and wildlife authorities too often lack the staff to stem this multimillion-dollar trade, turning conservation laws into paper tigers.

Despite the gloomy outlook for turtles many confiscations do take place. However, there is a lack of suitable places to then re-home the turtles. The Asian Turtle Programme and other organisations works hard to house confiscated turtles in conversation centres. As well as taking in confiscated turtles, many centres are trying to breed the endangered turtles in captive environments in order to create insurance populations. Captive breeding can help to increase turtle populations but hundreds of turtles cannot be set free to overrun national parks, and it does little good to release turtles in places where they would simply be recaptured.

Emphasis must be put onto education and research. Border controls should be better educated on which species are endangered and what to do if they come across a shipment of turtles. Research should focus on what countries have what turtles left, and what we need to do to save them. As well as identifying suitable areas where captive bred turtles can be released back into wild populations safely. The establishment of protected areas must be undertaken, as it is imperative that activities be banned from occurring in, or upstream from, sensitive habitats of critically endangered turtles.

The Asian turtle situation is clearly of grave concern, but yet little attention is given too these creatures. There are some organisations that are working very hard to stop the problem but this crisis must be seen as a global one. More must be done to stop the illegal trafficking across international borders. Most importantly Chinese people must release that consumption of these products is extremely unsustainable and by buying such products they are destroying the very source of them. In order to save Asia’s wild turtle’s attitudes must be altered not just in China but globally, while we are busy protecting large mega-fauna like the elephants etc. we are allowing thousands of smaller, less charismatic species to simply disappear. Extinction means gone forever, we are facing a future with no turtles, a species that has lived for over 200 million years, and we are the ones that are pushing them to the edge.

Footnote: If you would like to support one of the organisations helping to stop this crisis then you could donate to the Asian Turtle Programme. I am currently volunteering at their Turtle Conservation Centre which is working very hard to help this situation. You can donate using the following link:

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