The world’s kitchens serve up turtles every which way. In China, the specialty is turtle soup. With a seemingly insatiable appetite for these reptiles, diners in Asia are practically eating freshwater turtles to extinction.
Appetite for Turtles Feeds Collection Industry
Hunger for turtle meat is feeding the commercial hunting of turtles from Vietnam to Bangladesh to Indonesia – even from parts of North America. Shipments of thousands of live, adult turtles arrive daily in major Chinese markets.
Because turtles tend to mature late in life and reproduce slowly, species survival is highly dependent on longevity. But longevity is threatened, as younger turtles are being captured before they can reproduce. If Asian traders continue to do business at such a brisk pace, many freshwater turtle species – whose origins pre-date the rise of dinosaurs in the late Triassic period, more than 200 million years ago – may perish.
The burgeoning trade has severely depleted turtle populations on a global scale. Three-quarters of Asia’s 90 species of tortoise and freshwater turtle are now considered threatened. Worldwide, the danger is more imminent. Scientists from Conservation International (CI), the World Conservation Union (IUCN), and other partner organizations have assessed the status of 200 out of about 300 known species. Their estimates indicate that at least 40 percent of all tortoise and freshwater turtle species are at immediate risk of extinction.
“This is almost certainly an underestimate,” says Peter Paul van Dijk, director of CI’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS) Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Conservation Program. “Many species not yet evaluated will also prove to be threatened, and some that appear secure right now could join the ranks of threatened species.”
The threats to tortoises and freshwater turtles are further magnified by changes to their habitat resulting from human activities. From logging to slash-and-burn agriculture to pollution, plus the damming and channeling of rivers, the landscapes turtles call home are being damaged. These threats also decrease the life expectancy of turtles.
A Role for Everyone
Protecting freshwater turtles is an effort that requires cooperation across the board, from the highest levels of government to individuals around the world.
Although turtle protection laws exist, they are sometimes weak, under-regulated, or more significantly, not well enforced. As members of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), many countries have agreed to safeguard wild species from international trade. In collaboration with governments and local partners, CI is pushing for stronger enforcement of CITES rules in China and other Asian countries, the prime stomping grounds for turtle consumption and exploitation, as well as inclusion of additional turtle species under CITES protection.
Efforts to educate consumers have also proven successful in increasing participation in turtle conservation and in promoting safer dining choices.
In key Chinese cities, CI will distribute a green dining guide that highlights the potentially severe health hazards of eating wildlife. As part of a broad conservation awareness campaign leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the guide will provide information about the dangers of consuming wild species, including turtles, that may carry disease.
To develop local capacity for combating trade, CI has mentored a team of young Cambodian students that, in 2004, began conducting searches and surveys to assess the status of tortoise and turtle species in the Central Cardamom Protected Forest. The team is now widely recognized as expert in turtle conservation.
Additionally, nearly 30 independent projects designed to protect highly threatened turtles being carried out by local conservationists and academics have received support from the Turtle Conservation Fund, co-created and administered by CI since 2002.
“While there’s still a lot of work to be done to safeguard critical turtle habitats and reduce trade in wild turtles to levels that no longer damage the survival of their populations, it is not an impossible goal,” says van Dijk. “We have made real progress in recent years and will continue to make every effort so that no tortoise or freshwater turtle goes extinct.”