Can Network of Colonies Save Asia's Turtles?

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"It's an extraordinarily complex problem," said Peter Pritchard, director of the Chelonian Research Institute and vice chair of IUCN's Freshwater Turtle and Tortoise Specialist Group.

"You have to take into account the differences in culture," he explained. "The Chinese have always had a taste for turtle—they view it as a slab of meat the same way we think of salmon, for instance."

Until about ten years ago, most Chinese couldn't afford to eat turtle meat, Pritchard said. "That's changed now that the country has become more industrialized and their currency can be exchanged on the open market."

As a result of the increased demand, China's turtle populations have been virtually wiped out. Most turtles found in Chinese markets today were hunted and collected in neighboring countries. Turtle populations in remote areas of Vietnam, Borneo, Thailand, Bangladesh, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia have been decimated.

"Populations are being mined out to remnant levels," said Pritchard. "But because turtles are so widely available at the markets, there is no sense among the people that if you clean out whole populations there will be no turtles left in the long term."

The problem is especially acute in Southeast Asia, but is not exclusive to that region. Around the world, the number of critically endangered freshwater turtle species has more than doubled in only the last four years, according to the IUCN.

"Turtles around the world are in severe trouble," said Buhlmann, noting that Asian turtles represent one-third of all turtle species. There are at least 93 known species of Asian species, with new species still being found—some in the baskets of the Chinese marketplace.

Ensuring Species Survival, Diversity

It could be 50 years or more before the brakes have been put on turtle poaching, overharvesting, and habitat destruction, said Buhlmann. In the meantime, the assurance colonies would harbor enough turtles of each targeted species to create populations that could be successfully released back into their native habitat in the wild.

"Zoos have been breeding turtles to preserve species," he said. "But they have limited space and tend to maintain two pairs for people to look at, which is good for educational purposes, but doesn't provide a population large enough to be released back into the wild."

Under the colonies plan, turtle populations would be dispersed to a variety of locations, including nature preserves, zoos, unused fish hatcheries, wildlife parks, and even areas provided by hobbyists.

The colonies, Buhlmann said, would comprise "a network of organizations, institutions, and individuals managing offspring produced in captivity that will allow us to actually restock a population in the wild."

Buhlmann, who spends most of time working to get the program up and running, hopes to establish colonies around the world. Two have been created so far—Cuc Phong National Park in Vietnam and the Kadoorie Farms and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong. The Turtle Survival Alliance is currently talking with officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the possibility of using some abandoned fisheries in the southeastern United States for the program.

The alliance's first step is identifying the minimum number of turtles of a species needed to ensure a viable population and genetic diversity—say, 100 turtles. They could be dispersed and raised at different locations, but managed as an overall population.

"Assurance colonies would create an avenue for concerned hobbyists wanting to play their part in conservation," said Pritchard.

Sharing the Burden

A significant advantage of the approach, say its creators, is spreading the cost of turtle preservation and avoiding the need for huge investments in infrastructure.

"It takes a lot of money—money to set up networks, money to maintain facilities, money to continue research," said Buhlmann, adding that he spends much of his time fund-raising.

The wide range of partners expected to participate in the program could be challenging, however. Historically there has been an element of distrust between turtle ecologists and hobbyists.

But Rick Hudson, a conservation scientist at the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas and co-chair of the Turtle Survival Alliance, thinks a widely inclusive effort is both possible and necessary. And the private sector, he added, has a lot to offer in terms of resources, expertise, and existing infrastructure.

"There are bad and good animal husbandry programs both in zoos and the private sector," said Hudson. "What we're trying to do is identify the good ones and bring the standards up—raise the bar, so that what they're doing meets the standards of the International Union of Conservation Biologists."

The scattered colonies would also address a current problem by providing outlets for the huge number of illegally harvested turtles that are confiscated each year.

"One problem we've encountered in enforcement is that even if an officer identifies a load of illegal turtles, there's nowhere to send them if he does confiscate them," said Buhlmann. The Turtle Survival Alliance is working to be designated as a depository for confiscated turtles.

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