Millions of U.S. Turtles Consumed in China Annually

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 24, 2009

One growing export has tipped the U.S.-China trade balance: live turtles.

Each year millions of U.S. turtles that are hatched in farms or caught in the wild are devoured in China, where the onetime delicacy has become more available to the masses.

The Chinese eat turtles—especially softshell and snapper species—and use the animals' parts in traditional medicines that are said to boost everything from the immune system to sexual prowess.

But conservationists worry that this high demand will cause some U.S. freshwater turtle species to be eaten to extinction.

That's why the U.S. state of Florida just passed a tough new law that effectively ends commercial wild-turtle harvests. (See a Florida map.)

The new statute, made effective July 20, limits individuals to a "noncommercial use" of just one turtle a day for most of the state's species.

Florida's swamps, rivers, and coasts offer rich habitats for 25 species of turtles, several of which are declining due to human harvesting, according to the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust.

Insatiable Appetite

Fears of turtle overconsumption are grounded in some sobering statistics, experts say.

Chinese demand has already decimated populations in countries such as Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, and Indonesia, according to the nonprofit Conservation International.

(Related: "Wildlife Trade Booming in Burmese Casino Town.")

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that 75 percent of Asia's 90 freshwater turtle and tortoise species are now threatened.

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