China's Taste for Turtle Fuels Asian Crisis, Groups Say

Sharon Guynup
for National Geographic Today
March 5, 2003
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 Asia—and from around the globe—have 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..

Emergency Response

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 trouble—and 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

Conservationists are trying to find ways to balance human and cultural needs with adequate protection for the shy reptiles. Turtle meat is an important source of protein in the region.

It is also a preferred dish for marking special events, much like American's turkey at Thanksgiving. "In China, eating turtle is an ancient, time-honored tradition that should be respected," said Anders Rhodin, Director of the Chelonian Research Foundation in Lunenburg, Mass. But if the current trend continues, they will be eaten into extinction."

Traditional Chinese medicine ascribes great power to the turtle—to purify the blood, to cure diseases and to bestow longevity or virility. The Chinese three-striped box turtle, a purported cancer cure, can fetch up to $1,200 on the black market.

"We are hoping that over time, patterns of consumption will change," Rhodin says. "But if not, we need to find a sustainable way of meeting the demand that takes the pressure off wild populations. The answer is easy: turtle farming."

Although freshwater turtle farming is becoming more widespread throughout Asia, too many market turtles still come from nature.

New Initiatives

In the last few years, conservation efforts have included a variety of initiatives. Washington, D.C-based Conservation International established the Turtle Conservation Fund to back protection efforts by many wildlife organizations.

Conservationists have designed action plans for individual species, established captive breeding programs and developed means to protect wild animals in their native habitats. For many little-studied species, this requires basic field studies detailing their natural history.

Last year, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, listed 24 additional Asian species, requiring that trade in these animals not affect wild populations.

Many of these animals have been smuggled out of nations that have laws and quotas protecting them. But experts note that in some countries, these laws exist only as 'paper tigers,' making it easy for illegal trade to continue.

Enforcement is a problem. Staff is often limited and species identification is no easy task. "For customs inspectors at border crossings confronted by a crate of turtles, it's been nearly impossible to determine which species are being traded legally—and which aren't," said Weissgold.

Herpetologists have compiled field guides in many languages to aid wildlife officers in identifying at-risk animals.

Preserving Turtles for the Future

It appears that these efforts have made a small difference. The trade continues but appears to have diminished slightly, with fewer turtles in the markets and some reports of exporters' closing up shop.

But the prognosis for some turtles and tortoises is pretty bleak, notes Kurt Buhlmann, a conservation ecologist specializing in turtles at Conservation International in Washington D.C. "We may lose some from in the wild," he says, "but we're not going to let them go extinct."

To preserve remaining genetic diversity, in the last two years IUCNs Turtle Survival Alliance has established dozens of "assurance colonies," breeding centers scattered throughout the U.S. and Europe.

The colonies target the 20 Asian species that are in critical condition as well as other endangered turtles, acting as "captive Noahs arks of breeding populations," says Buhlmann.

These centers provide insurance in the event that wild populations do disappear and need reintroduction back into former habitat, said Rhodin. "But we hope we can save wild populations because repatriation is never the best option."

Towards that end, biologists are working with government agencies to help set up protected areas. But these areas themselves need to be protected from poachers before captive-bred turtles could be reintroduced.

"The long-term goal is to have viable populations in the wild," said Buhlmann.

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