Turtles Smuggled to China as Food Find Haven in U.S.

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
January 11, 2002

In December last year an illegal shipment of 7,500 turtles was seized in Hong Kong. Stacked like hamburger patties, one on top of another, live turtles were found crammed into crates, without food or water and some still with hooks in their throats, bound for the food markets of China. Now heroic efforts, coordinated by the Turtle Survival Alliance, are underway to rehabilitate and relocate the animals.

This weekend the fourth shipment of turtles—approximately 2,058 animals—arrives in Miami to receive medical treatment and subsequent relocation to a breeding colony.

For the past two years the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA)—an unlikely consortium of commercial turtle breeders, conservationists, hobbyists, university researchers, zoos, aquariums, and veterinarians—have been talking with the Hong Kong government about how to channel confiscated Asian turtles into conservation programs.

"I thought we would begin this program with maybe a couple of crates of confiscated turtles, fifty or a hundred animals, that could be handled by a team of about five people," said Kurt Buhlmann of Conservation International, and the co-chair of the TSA.

"But I never expected to receive 7,500 turtles the first time we attempted these rescue efforts," said Buhlmann.

Most of these turtles come from Malaysia and at least four of the 12 species present are endangered: the black marsh turtle, the Asian brown tortoise, the Malaysian giant turtle, and the yellow-headed temple turtle. Two species are on the brink of extinction.

The goal of the TSA is to use the confiscated turtles as breeding stock to establish "assurance colonies." Each colony is a genetically diverse collection of turtles from a single species that will be bred in captivity to create "stockpiles" of the species and hopefully "assure" its survival.

Turtles May One Day "Restock" the Wild

Eventually, the "stockpiled" animals would be used to restock protected wild regions whose endemic turtle populations have been wiped out.

None of these turtles or their offspring will ever be commercially traded.

"We chose to use confiscated animals because it punishes the traders, and doesn't stimulate demand because the animals were not purchased through the markets," says Buhlmann. It also removes the burden from the government because they are not saddled with the task of finding homes for the animals.

In late December the three shipments of turtles—1,144 animals—arrived in Miami from the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong, an animal refuge where the confiscated turtles were taken after being seized.

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