for National Geographic Today
The live animal market in Guang Zhou, China, sprawls for acres, with whole blocks crammed with vats and bins and buckets overflowing with thousands of turtles and tortoises. Dozens of species are represented, and this scene is mirrored in markets across China, in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In the decade since industrialization provided new-found wealth to China, freshwater turtles and tortoises from throughout Southeast Asiaand from around the globehave made their way to Chinese markets in astonishing numbers.
Sold mostly for food, but also for traditional Chinese medicine and the exotic pet trade, this unprecedented demand has greatly depleted the numbers of many species, creating the so-called "Asian turtle crisis."
Experts believe that up to four Chinese species may now be extinct in the wild and over 50 percent of all Southeast Asian turtle species in the region are listed as endangered by The World Conservation Union, or IUCN, in Gland, Switzerland. Sixty-seven of the 90 Southeast Asian species are threatened, up from 33 in 1996.
But there is a larger concern: the ecological domino effect. "You can't collect literally millions of turtles from China and Southeast Asia without great impairment to the ecology of the wetland environments from which they come," explains John Behler, curator of herpetology at the Bronx, NY-based Wildlife Conservation Society..
But the good news is that the crisis has ignited a quick and united emergency response from individuals, conservation groups and regulatory and enforcement agencies that seems to be making a difference.
"The Asian crisis alerted the world to the fact that freshwater turtles are in troubleand this is a global crisis," said Behler. "As time passes, the Asian markets' tentacles are reaching out to include animals from Africa and South America."
Experts say there are no reliable estimates on the numbers of animals involved in the trade, but Bruce Weissgold, a Senior CITES Specialist at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, believes "it's safe to say that it involves millions of specimens and tens of millions of dollars."
Turtles have been around for about 300 million years, predating the dinosaurs.
Turtles as Tradition
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