Turtle Tragedy

Demand in Asia may be wiping out turtle populations worldwide.

By Wendy Williams

© 1999 by Wendy Williams.  Originally printed in Scientific American, June 1999.
Reprinted here by permission (New York Turtle and Tortoise Society, nytts.org/asianturtlecrisis.html).
Further use (for print or electronic media) only by permission of author, wisuwi@ibm.net.

In July 1997, William P. McCord, carrying a small camcorder, crossed from Hong Kong into mainland China.  Word was that for the past several years, China’s vast live food markets served as the final destination for hundreds of thousands of the world’s wild turtles.  McCord, a turtle expert from the East Fishkill Animal Hospital in upstate New York, recorded hours of painfully graphic videotape showing the slaughter of turtles, the arrival of transport trucks and the endless numbers of animals for sale.  Many on the tape are banned from trade by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), such as the Hamilton’s terrapin and the Ganges soft-shell turtle.  McCord’s tape also revealed many American turtles caught in the wild — mostly, Florida soft-shells, red-eared sliders, and snapping turtles.  The size of the few markets he saw, McCord says, compares with that of New York City’s Fulton Fish Market.  “It’s terrible,” he groans, “and nobody’s doing very much — if anything — to stop it.”

Market in Guangzhou.  Photo by William McCord.
Market in Guangzhou

After viewing the tape at a meeting, herpetologists despaired. “Given the volume of what was going on there, there are probably more individual animals of endangered species being killed for food every day than we could conserve in a lifetime,” laments John Gramieri, curator of herpetology at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.  John L. Behler of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who chairs the World Conservation Union (IUCN) committee responsible for chelonian protection, estimated that at least 10,000 live turtles were present in that Guangzhou market on the day of McCord’s taping.

Mature, wild-caught turtles are prized in Chinese markets because they are thought to confer wisdom, health or longevity when consumed.  With increasing wealth and reduced trade barriers, people have more opportunities than ever to buy and sell.  “This is an unfortunate combination of centuries-old tradition with newfound wealth,” says Ross Kiester of the U.S. Forest Service, who helped to chart turtle trade routes in Southeast Asia.  A turtle, he notes, “is the perfect gift to give an honored relative — the Chinese equivalent of giving your aunt a box of Godiva.”  Kiester saw a Vietnamese peasant receive $1,200 for a commercially extinct Chinese three-striped box turtle, believed to cure cancer.  Fifteen years ago this turtle sold in Hong Kong for $10.

There are no hard numbers as to how many of these markets exist globally, but researchers believe that the trade is seriously affecting turtle populations worldwide.  McCord estimates from his tape that “90 percent of the animals were from outside the country.”  Most Chinese species have become commercially extinct, and many Southeast Asian species are very nearly so.  No definitive studies indicate the drain on American turtles.  But according to a recent analysis by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade-monitoring program of the World Wildlife Fund, 617 turtles of the tracked species were exported from the U.S. in 1985.  By 1995, the number had increased to 154,681 — an increase attributed largely to their demand as food in Asia.  Behler estimates that 25 million were exported for the food and pet trade between 1993 and 1997.

“The problem we have now with the turtle trade is the sheer volume,” says TRAFFIC’s Craig Hoover.  “There’s a shipper in Indonesia who has a standing order for one ton of turtles a day to send to China.  There’s a turtle dealer in the U.S. with a standing order of at least one ton of turtles per week to be sent to China.”  The rate, researchers say, is unsustainable — particularly because the turtles being taken are the mature animals, those few who have made it through a dicey infancy and subadulthood to become reproductive stock.

Malayan box turtles, in the upper left; recently described Indonesian black-breasted leaf turtles, center; and spiny turtles in yellow basket.  Photo by William McCord.

Market in Guangzhou

In the U.S., the explosion of turtle exports has caught conservationists off-guard.  For years, the task has been to stem illegal wildlife imports; export problems were generally considered less serious.  But these days, estimates U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) special agent Joe Ventura, based at Los Angeles International Airport, some 40 to 50 crates of live turtles pass through that airport each week.  Because few of these species are on the CITES list, Ventura can do nothing to stop them.  Making accounting matters even more difficult, some turtles may be illegally packaged as “seafood” and thus escape USFWS scrutiny.

Exacerbating the problem for non-CITES species is the fact that the U.S. has no regulations concerning their humane transport.  Robert Johnson, curator of reptiles at the Toronto Zoo, notes that turtles are dumped layers deep on top of one another, often with hooks in their mouths — probably from baiting.  Johnson says that Canadian groups are “disgusted” and that officials are sending back some shipments because of the maltreatment.

Federal agent Ellen Kiley of the USFWS, stationed in Buffalo, N.Y., confirms the inhumane packaging, adding that agents currently have “no tool under our regulations as to transport, unless there’s a significant mortality.”  Matters could be different: Ventura notes that “some of the European countries, a colleague of mine told me, enforce [CITES] regulations for all species.  But this [approach] is not taken very seriously in the U.S.”  [See also “CITES and the Turtle and Tortoise Trade”.]

A partial solution would be establishing humane transport regulations through the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a Montreal-based nonprofit agency, which has already held two meetings this year on the subject.  The self-regulatory agency has established such standards for mammals and birds, thereby protecting them.  Because most airlines abide by IATA decisions and because a large proportion of the turtles appear to be transported by air, strict humane regulations may make the animals simply too expensive to ship.  Says Johnson:  “If the U.S. would enforce humane shipping policies, that would cause the cost of the turtles to go up and the trade would likely disappear.  We want to make the cost of humane treatment be borne by those who want to eat turtle meat.  That’s a fair way of treating the value of wildlife.”

Mark Phillips of the USFWS Office of Management Authority notes that his agency is currently discussing regulations for reptiles similar to those for birds and mammals under the Lacey Act, first enacted in 1900 to protect wildlife from commerce.  Phillips says that proposed regulations will most likely be published in the Federal Register sometime this summer.  After a review period, those regulations will be enforceable.  Unfortunately, the Lacey Act is generally assumed to pertain only to imported animals; legislative authority to control the export of live, non-CITES-listed animals is sketchy.

The deeper concern among conservationists is that the burgeoning turtle trade might be only the tip of a massive marketing of wildlife stimulated by borderless finance.  The Internet, the explosive globalization of capital and its concurrent huge expansion of international transport make trafficking in protected animals more lucrative than ever before.  “We better wake up and smell the coffee,” Behler warns.  [See also “Troubled Times for Turtles” by John L. Behler.]

WENDY WILLIAMS, a wildlife journalist based in Cape Cod, Mass., is working on a book about turtles and the new globalism called Green Turtle Soup.

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