The Terrible Turtle Trade

Around the world, turtles are being sold as pets and spreading disease.
They are even dissected live for their meat.

By Ted Williams

© National Audubon Society Mar/Apr 1999.
Audubon 44, Monday, March 1, 1999, Volume 101, Issue 2
Reprinted here by permission (New York Turtle and Tortoise Society,

This article has been translated into Czech:
This article has been translated into Indonesian:

RABBITS THEY WERE NOT.  Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail were hatchling turtles, red-eared sliders the size of silver dollars, trucked to New England from “turtle ranches” in the South and casually tended by my two young sisters in the 1960s.  They came with their own frying-pan-size pool with a plastic palm tree in the middle.  When they died (which happened about twice a month), our mother would rush down to the pet store and buy new ones before my sisters returned from school.  Sometimes Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail died from overwhelming bacterial infection i.e., they “went septic.”  At other times they died from parasites or malnutrition or were eaten by our pet raccoon.  My sisters wondered why extra pools were stacked all over the cellar and why their turtles never grew.  Basically, they were disposable pets.

Since then, there have been big changes in the pet-turtle industry.  Some species are no longer available, and prices for others have soared.  This is because a third of the world’s 266 known species are threatened with extinction.  Although the pet trade is only one of many threats, it has shown that the sustainable harvest of adult turtles is, as one herpetologist puts it, “an oxymoron.”  The stunning success of the order Testudines over the past 210 million years has not been a function of fecundity.  Turtles don’t spew eggs like fish and amphibians; instead, they rely on longevity, replacing themselves over decades.  One wild adult represents an enormous genetic investment.

And yet wild adult turtles are legally and routinely caught and sold on domestic and foreign markets.  Now that old-world turtles are in short supply and, in some cases, protected, North American box turtles are in greater demand.  Box turtles, which can live for 120 years, are legally caught and peddled in this country.  In Louisiana the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is waging a fierce lobbying blitz to get American box turtles removed from Appendix II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, to which 144 nations are signatory) so they can be sold abroad as well.  The Appendix II designation permits foreign trade only if there’s proof it won’t hurt wild populations.  But there is no such proof, says John Behler, head of herpetology at the Bronx Zoo and chair of the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.  He calls Louisiana’s quest to redevelop the world market “harvest-till-they-drop management.”

Wood turtles, which can live for a century and don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 10 to 20, were rejected in 1994 for threatened status under the Endangered Species Act.  Now they are so popular as pets that poachers have stripped entire watersheds.  “In some states you can tell when poachers have been through a drainage,” says turtle researcher Jim Harding of Michigan State University.  “One ridge over from a healthy population, there’ll be nothing.  They pick them up by the gunnysack.  Even though we’ve stopped that here in Michigan, every time the Boy Scouts canoe down a stream, they pick up one or two.  Populations get knocked off suddenly by experienced poachers or over years by incidental collecting.”

Steve Garber, now a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in Prescott, Arizona, spent 20 years studying a wood-turtle population on 2,471 acres controlled by the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority.  All was fine with his 133 marked subjects until 1983, when the watershed was opened to public recreation.  Immediately the turtles began to disappear.  Garber was baffled.  He checked disease, road mortality, predation.  Finally, he discovered hikers were taking the turtles home one at a time.  In 1991 only 14 remained.  In 1992 they were gone. 

The foreign and domestic sale of wood turtles is illegal, but some states let people collect them for pets.  So all pet wood turtles are said to have been collected rather than purchased, and wildlife officers can rarely make a case against poachers.  In Florida, 20- and 30-year-old adult turtles (supposedly bred in captivity) had been arriving at wholesalers by the pickuptruck load and finding their way to Europe.  Equally stressed by the pet trade are spotted and map turtles.  Bog turtles, declared federally threatened in 1997, go for about $1,000 each on the black market.  “It seems impossible to think of someone catching a robin and selling it at a pet store,” says Garber.  “We now take it for granted that those animals are totally off-limits, but in many cases catching and selling wild turtles is completely legal.”

Pet stores still carry redeared sliders, selling them for $10 to $15 each, but the silver-dollar-size ones are no longer available.  In 1975 the Food and Drug Administration banned domestic sale of turtles less than four inches in length because they were causing an estimated 300,000 cases of salmonellosis annually.  Ranched turtles are fed slaughterhouse offal rich in salmonella, and when children would put the hatchlings in their mouths, they’d get sick.  It wasn’t that the big ones were any less riddled with disease, it was just that they didn’t slide so trippingly over the tongue.  The ranches (which aren’t ranches at all but fenced-in ponds into which adult sliders from the wild are continually dumped for breeding stock) responded by catching even more wild adults for sale in the United States and by shifting the hatchling trade overseas.  Today about 8 million hatchlings, most of them laden with salmonella, are annually exported to 60 nations. 

Venting excuses and apologies for the pet-turtle trade is Marshall Meyers, executive vice-president of a trade group called the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.  But when I asked him if it was hypocritical of the United States to declare mouth-size turtles too dangerous for anyone but foreigners, he gave me an honest answer: “Since when has the U.S. government not been hypocritical?”

The pet-turtle business is infecting more than just people.  “We are, in fact, exporting our turtle-disease problems around the world, and the potential for problems of epidemic proportions to wild stocks is high,” Behler warns.  When the pets get sick or their owners tire of them, they are tossed or flushed into habitat occupied by native turtles.  Red-eared sliders, for example, native to the Mississippi drainage from Illinois south, are now established in the wild all over the world.  In Washington they are threatening the vanishing Pacific pond turtle.  In the southeastern states they are compromising the genetic integrity of yellow-bellied sliders by breeding with them.  Two years ago the 16-member European Union banned the import of red-eared sliders because of the damage they are said to be doing to European pond turtles.  Meanwhile, in the Mississippi system-the one place red-eared sliders belong-they are in decline.

Two turtle species desert tortoises in the West and gopher tortoises in the Southeast are getting clobbered by a fatal respiratory-tract infection that they may have contracted from imported tortoises unleashed in their habitat.  Nearly 250,000 desert tortoises are kept as pets in California, Arizona, and Nevada, and wherever the respiratory disease is encountered, feral tortoises are found nearby.  Turtle authority Bill Belzer, a biologist at Clarion University, in Pennsylvania, reports, “More than 50 percent of the individuals in some desert-tortoise populations now carry this contagious, incurable disease, pressing the species toward extinction.” Recently the malady has shown up in North American box turtles.

Quickening the spread of turtle disease here and abroad is the belief of some Asians that good karma can be had by being kind to captive turtles i.e., setting them free.  In America and around the world you can buy wild-caught specimens for the express purpose of releasing them-except that in many cases they don’t belong in the places they are released.  In New York City a dealer of Florida softshell turtles a species that lives in warm freshwater habitats-recently sold a load to a Buddhist temple, then watched while the animals were ceremoniously dumped into New York Harbor.

Last december I visited the Turtle Hospital of New England, in Upton, Massachusetts — the only health-care facility in North America for land and freshwater turtles.  It is directed by Barbara Bonner, an intense young veterinarian who teaches reptile clinical medicine at Tufts University.  Turtles from all over the world stretched their necks at us as we walked past their plastic tubs.  They were begging for food, usually processed pellets.  Some of the patients that weren’t begging had intravenous catheters protruding from their necks or fiberglass-and-epoxy patches on broken carapaces and plastrons.  Some were septic and oozing blood through their shells.  A few were on oxygen.  Bonner showed me an enormous fish hook she had extracted from the gullet of a now-robust Florida softshell legally harvested by baited setline and legally sold at a Boston fish market.  With a Doppler ultrasound probe we listened to the whoosh-shoosh-whoosh heartbeat of a healed flower-box turtle and the much slower pulse of a diseased one. 

Unlike birds or mammals, abused turtles take a year or two to get sick.  Even with the right treatment, which few vets other than Bonner are trained to provide, they take a year or two to get well.  According to Bonner, virtually all turtles from pet stores are desperately sick when purchased.  “It takes about six months just to clean them up and rid them of parasites,” she says.  “Some are half the body weight they ought to be.  It’s estimated that 95 percent of the wild turtles that enter the pet trade are dead within a year.  Pet stores don’t make their money selling the turtle; they make their money selling the $250 setup that goes with it.  So if your pet dies, it doesn’t matter to them, because with that kind of investment, you’re going to buy another.”

Reptile dealers (who sell hundreds of species to the pet trade) frequently salvage wild turtles from food markets in China, where it is believed that humans can acquire longevity by eating turtle meat.  There is scant interest in eating captive-bred turtles, because they are perceived, correctly, to be not long-lived.  The Chinese consumed their own turtles long ago; but in the late 1980s, when their currency became interchangeable on the world market, they began consuming everyone else’s.  All the turtles of Southeast Asia 65 species, a quarter of the world’s total are now in grave danger.  “It’s the greatest reptile crisis since the demise of the dinosaurs,” declares Bonner.

In July 1997, American veterinarian and turtle collector William McCord visited two Chinese turtle markets in the cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen.  He reported seeing about 10,000 turtles sold over a two-day period.  And after a recent trek to Vietnam, Ross Kiester of the U.S.  Forest Service’s Global Biodiversity Team filed this report: “Wherever we looked there was what we called a reverse pet shop-a storefront with signs advertising it would buy any kind of turtle.  We’ve recently been told that those stores are closing since there are no more turtles left to buy.”

Ironically, the U.S.  pet trade provides some of these species their one chance to escape extinction.  If enough people like Bonner can purchase food-market refugees from pet dealers and get them to reproduce in captivity, there’s a possibility of someday restocking Southeast Asia.  That, in fact, is the primary mission of the Turtle Hospital of New England, whose Turtle Bank works with nine needy Southeast Asian species that Bonner has identified as most practical to obtain and breed.  The main problem is that the turtles arrive in frightful condition.  Many haven’t eaten for six months, and some have been packed on ice.  Having been kept in filthy water and mixed with turtles of all species, they are loaded with pathogens and parasites.  Typical was the flower-box turtle mailed to the hospital by a colleague in Chicago.  When I saw it, its eyes were crusted shut.  It was septic, emaciated, on a feeding tube, and receiving ten medications, some intravenously.  Yet, tenuous and pathetic as its existence was, this turtle was one of the lucky ones.

The bank’s two specimens of Geoemyda yuwonoi a species for which there is not yet a popular name because it was discovered only three years ago, on an island in Southeast Asia were doing somewhat better.  They had arrived from a Chinese food market carrying one egg each (the normal clutch size); but they were so sick that the eggs would have rotted inside them.  To save their lives, Bonner had administered a drug to make them lay the eggs, which to her surprise seemed viable and are now in the incubator.

“How do we stop the slaughter?” I asked her.

“You don’t,” she said.  “You establish refugee populations in as many places as you can, and you wait for the animals to become extinct in the wild and for people to value them alive.” The video Bonner ran for me shot by McCord at the turtle markets in Guangzhou and Shenzhen convinced me that she had it right.  Trucks, crates, and barrels were packed with live turtles, including at least five species listed on Appendix I of CITES the critically endangered designation, which forbids trade among member nations, of which China is one.  Since there is no refrigeration at the Chinese markets, turtles must be kept alive, but this in no way interferes with preparation of the animals as food.  Butchers carefully remove carapaces and plastrons with chisels and hammers.  Fat is sliced out, unwanted organs discarded, and the still-living beasts stacked on display counters.  “I can’t watch this; I’ll be back,” announced Bonner when a butcher began chopping away at a large softshell.  After the carapace and several pounds of organs had been removed, what remained of the turtle bit the knife and was beaten back.  [See slide shows on this site of still photos taken along with McCord video.]

Even Chinese markets in the United States butcher turtles this way.  Humane laws that apply to warmblooded creatures don’t apply to reptiles, because the public somehow equates the ability to experience pain with the ability to thermoregulate.  In 1981 Congress asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to promulgate regulations for humane and healthful importation of reptiles, but the agency didn’t get around to it until 1997.  When the draft regulations were published, the pet industry shrieked and the Fish and Wildlife Service retreated.  At this writing the regulations are said to be in the works again, but that could mean anything.  The airlines have regulations for both importation and exportation, but these are commonly ignored, because only about 7 percent of the shipments are ever inspected.  “People don’t realize that while they are on the plane sipping their sodas there are turtles and lizards below them, bleeding to death,” says Teresa Telecky, director of wildlife trade for the Humane Society of the United States.

That’s not just animal rights hyperbole, according to wildlife inspector Joe Ventura of the Fish and Wildlife Service, who works the Port of Los Angeles.  “We’ve seen turtles stacked on their sides like dinner plates so they couldn’t extend their limbs,” he says.  Turtles destined for the pet trade are often shipped in cardboard boxes that get crushed when cargo shifts, and it’s not unusual to see these boxes soaked with blood.  In one shipment from Tanzania, 511 pancake tortoises and 307 leopard tortoises had been packed on top of one another.  Fifty animals were dead, 400 appeared near death, and almost all were grievously dehydrated.  There was much blood, many broken carapaces, and dozens of missing legs.  About 50 females carried broken eggs.  [See also “CITES and the Turtle and Tortoise Trade”.]

“I am a turtle keeper,” says Allen Salzberg, director of the Society for the Conservation of Reptiles and Amphibians.  “But I also believe that the continued shipping of turtles into the U.S.  in the present unregulated state is pure consumer fraud.  Stress kills turtles.  What can be more stressful than being crammed into a box with hundreds of other animals for a week or more? Even if an animal survives, the damage has been done, and it’s only a matter of time until it dies.”

But the pet industry’s Meyers told me, “Our industry advocates humane transport rules by the airlines.  In fact, we forced them to put in some humane standards back in the early 1970s.  You don’t condemn a whole activity by an isolated shipment.” When I asked him if, given all the problems of depletion, genetic contamination, and disease, people should keep pet turtles at all, he said, “Should people keep dogs? Dogs have disease, too.  Dogs run free.  There’s a split in the environmental community.  There are some people who believe in sustainable use.  There are some that don’t.”  I guess it depends how you define sustainable.

Something was bothering me about all the turtle conservationists I talked to.  If having turtles for pets is as reprehensible as they claim, how is it that almost all of them have kept and/or keep pet turtles? “That’s the conundrum,” explained Bonner.  “The only chance turtles have is for people to care passionately about them.  But if you grow up without ever having turtles as pets or ever coming close to them in the wild, you become an adult who doesn’t care if turtles stay on the planet.  People who want a turtle shouldn’t go to a pet store, and they shouldn’t catch one.  They should contact a turtle society and get the name of a reputable breeder.  Turtles sold by breeders are expensive-maybe $150 each-but more likely to be healthy.  People need to understand that turtles are long-lived; nobody should buy one without being willing to make a 50-year commitment.”

Having watched my sisters’ disposable red-eared sliders cascade into the black hole of pestilence and predation, and having raised a turtle-doting daughter of my own, I now offer this advice to parents: All children who beg for a pet turtle should be ignored for at least two months.  If they persist after that, it’s okay to listen.  Ask why they want one.  Fondness for the television cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not a good reason.  (When the series debuted in Britain, one pet dealer reported a 400 percent increase in turtle sales.)  If you know someone who keeps a turtle, ask if your child can scrub the green scum off the sides of the tank and the rocks, dump the smelly water, and watch while the turtle shreds its food and, as likely as not, bites the hand that feeds it.

After four months, if the child asks again, provide the phone number of a top breeder and announce that it’s okay to start saving money.