for National Geographic News
China's hunger for turtle meat, which has sparked a conservation crisis across Asia since the 1980s, is increasingly being met by farm-raised animals.
But the rapid expansion of commercial turtle farming is continuing to place China's native species at risk of extinction, some experts say.
In a letter published in the February issue of the journal Conservation Biology, four turtle experts from China and the U.S. wrote that turtle farms are the number one purchasers of Chinese turtles captured in the wild.
"The captive breeding of turtles for profit is widespread in China," said co-author James Parham, of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. "The sheer scale of it dwarfs all previous predictions.
"Turtle farmers buy wild-caught turtles to improve their breeding stock," Parham explained. "There is a belief that wild turtles breed better in captivity than captive-born turtles."
Gains and Losses
Parham worked with Shi Haitao, of China's Hainan Normal University, to survey the extent of Chinese turtle farming and assess its impacts.
The biologists report that more than a thousand turtle farms valued at more than a billion U.S. dollars currently exist in the country.
Peter Paul van Dijk is a turtle conservation expert with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Conservation International, who was not involved with the new survey.
He said some farms are primarily illegal laundering operations that sell wild-caught turtles as "farm raised."
Others, he said, "persist in attempts to be the first to mass-breed a particular [threatened] species. These are particularly damaging to wild populations."
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