Saving Turtles by Taking Them off the Menu

National Geographic News
May 15, 2003
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The Turtle Conservation Fund has listed the 25 most endangered turtles to highlight the survival crisis facing tortoises and freshwater turtles and to unveil a global plan to prevent further extinctions. Two hundred of the world's 300 remaining species are threatened and require conservation action, the group says.

"Many of the critically endangered species are at great risk of going extinct within the next 20 years unless we take immediate action," said Kurt Buhlmann, Conservation International's director for the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science Turtle Program, and executive director for the Turtle Conservation Fund (TCF). The Fund is a partnership of units of Conservation International (CI), an environment nonprofit headquartered in Washington, D.C., and The World Conservation Union (IUCN), a Switzerland-based organization of government and non-government agencies.

"With nine of the world's turtle species and subspecies having already become extinct at the hands of modern man, and fully two-thirds of the remaining species under great threat, we have a crisis that needs to be addressed immediately," said Anders Rhodin, director of the Chelonian Research Foundation, chairperson of the TCF.

The TCF intends to raise an estimated U.S. $5.6 million to cover a five-year "Global Action Plan" that includes captive breeding (using trade-confiscated turtles), additional field research, development of country support for trade monitoring, illegal trade confiscations, establishment of rescue centers, sustainable harvest programs, ecologically sound turtle farming (for commercial purposes to lessen pressures on wild populations), relocation and return to countries of origin, public outreach and educational programs, trade regulation enforcement, and identification and establishment of protected areas that take tortoises and freshwater turtles into consideration.

Unrelenting Demand for Turtles as Food

Turtles are increasingly threatened by human exploitation and development-related pressures. Of particular concern is the unrelenting demand from the Asian food and traditional medicine market with more than half of the continent's 90 species endangered or critically endangered. Tons of live turtles are imported each day to southern China from the Southeast Asia region, with more than 10 million individuals traded per year, according to the TCF.

In Indonesia, for example, the Fund said in a statement, the Sulawesi forest turtle is already critically endangered after only being known to science for less than ten years. "The belief that soup and jelly made from the attractive Chinese three-striped box turtle has cancer-curing properties has reduced populations of this species to a few remnant colonies in Northern Vietnam and China," the statement said.

The non-sustainable harvest of turtles has decimated natural populations near the consumer source in China and has reached deep into the surrounding Southeast Asian regions and is now even beginning to impact turtles in North America, Africa, Europe and elsewhere, according to the TCF.

In many areas, other threats to turtles include development, habitat destruction and fragmentation, as well as unregulated pet trade collection. Turtles are also affected by human-caused threats such as invasive alien species, chemical and hormonal pollution, gradual global warming, and various illnesses due to introduced pathogens, such as the upper respiratory tract disease affecting North American desert tortoises.

Species on the Top 25 list (see side bar) cling to survival in small numbers in Asia (12), South Africa (2), Madagascar (3), the Mediterranean (1), Australia (2), South America (2), Mesoamerica (1), and the United States (2).

Twenty-one of the species occur in 11 of the world's 25 biodiversity hotspots, areas which house the greatest number of species yet face the most severe threats.

Critical to the turtles' survival, the TCF statement said, will be protection of these hotspots where small populations still remain: Indo-Burma, Sundaland, the Philippines, Wallacea, Succulent Karoo, Cape Floristic Region, Madagascar & Indian Ocean Islands, Mediterranean Basin, Southwestern Australia, Choco-Darien-Western Ecuador, and Mesoamerica.

"Turtles have been around since before many dinosaurs walked the planet and have survived relatively unchanged for about 250 million years," said CI President Russell Mittermeier. "But mankind's actions have brought them to the brink of extinction. It's our responsibility to bring them back."

The 25 Most Endangered Turtles

River terrapin (Batagur baska), Southeast Asia

Burmese roofed turtle (Kachuga trivittata), Myanmar

Striped narrow-headed softshell turtle (Chitra chitra), Southeast Asia

Vietnam leaf turtle (Mauremys annamensis), Vietnam

Roti snake-necked turtle (Chelodina mccordi), Indonesia

Southern speckled padloper tortoise (Homopus signatus cafer), South Africa

Chinese three-striped box turtle (Cuora trifasciata), Northern Vietnam &China

Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), China and Vietnam

Arakan forest turtle (Heosemys depressa), Myanmar

Madagascar big-headed turtle (Erymnochelys madagascariensis), Madagascar

Burmese star tortoise (Geochelone platynota), Myanmar

Yellow-blotched map turtle (Graptemys flavimaculata), United States

Sulawesi forest turtle (Leucocephalon yuwonoi), Indonesia

Painted terrapin (Callagur borneoensis), Southeast Asia

Flat-tailed tortoise (Pyxis planicauda), Madagascar

Geometric tortoise (Psammobates geometricus), South Africa

Philippine forest turtle (Heosemys leytensis), Philippine Islands

Egyptian tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni), S.E. Mediterranean

Western swamp turtle (Pseudemydura umbrina), Australia

Mary river turtle (Elusor macrurus), Australia

Dahl 's toad-headed turtle (Batrachemys dahli), Colombia

Abingdon Island tortoise /Galapagos tortoise (Geochelone nigra abingdoni), Galapagos Islands

Central American river turtle (Dermatemys mawii), Central America

Bog turtle (Clemmys muhlenbergii), United States

Ploughshare tortoise (Geochelone yniphora), Madagascar

More About Turtles

News Stories
Saving Sea Turtles With a Lights-Out Policy in Florida
Girl Scouts Help Scientist Conserve Turtles in U.S.
Leatherback Turtles Near Extinction, Experts Say
Can Network of Colonies Save Asia's Turtles?
China's Taste for Turtle Fuels Asian Crisis, Groups Say
Turtles Smuggled to China as Food Find Haven in U.S.

National Geographic Magazine Photos:
1930 image of bather "riding" on the back of a turtle in Australia
David Doubilet image of a green turtle

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