Troubled Times for Turtles

John L. Behler

Chairman, IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group

Curator of Herpetology, Wildlife Conservation Society

Wildlife Conservation Society
185th St. and Southern Blvd.
Bronx, NY 10460, USA
Photo: J. L. Behler

Photo: John L. Behler, Chair, Workshop on Wildlife Trade,
Conservation, Restoration, and Management of Tortoises and Turtles—An International Conference,
July 1993, Purchase, New York

July 1997 — It has been 1,500 days since “Purchase.”  That we can compress the International Conference on Conservation, Restoration, and Management of Tortoises and Turtles into a one-word moniker is clear evidence that the event was an extraordinary happening for the 200-plus chelonian specialists and aficionados in attendance.  Some 25 countries were represented.  Herpetologists, conservation biologists, veterinarians, infectious disease specialists, ecologists, land managers, law enforcers, politicians, geneticists, zoo workers, museum curators, taxonomists, wildlife agency representatives, lawyers, humane society representatives, captive breeders, and turtle society members from New York to California came together for common cause at the Purchase, New York, conference.  It was an amalgam of “turtle people” of the first order.  And it was a benchmark for chelonian conservation.  Kudos must go to Michael Klemens, Director of the Turtle Recovery Program, for the conception and execution of this event, and we are indeed fortunate that it is chronicled so magnificently in these proceedings.

What we carry away from special conferences and symposia is unique to each of us.  Early in my career I learned that there are far more important reasons for attending them than the formal paper presentations.  One of my colleagues, who prided himself in never listening to a paper (“You can read the abstracts on the plane . . . and if the papers are any good they’ll be published”), told me that the essence of the meeting is the people themselves and what is important is getting to know them and what they really think.  Well, I confess I missed a few of the 80+ Purchase papers to collegial chatter and attendance to business, but I didn’t miss many.  Frankly, most conferees were so passionate about the turtle conservation matters at hand that they jammed the lecture hall, leaving few attendees with whom to talk in the great room beyond it.  Now, thankfully, we can rejoice in having the very polished, better than original, papers (thank you, again, Jim Van Abbema, Peter Pritchard, and others who pitched in to iron out wrinkles) as well as the many good memories beyond the formalities.  For me, the take-home message of the Purchase conference remains much the same today as it did in July 1993.  It came from a distillation of the papers, posters, focused formal discussion groups, one-on-one discussions at breaks, and exchanges made during evening gatherings.  Boiled down to simplest terms, it reaffirmed my contention that our 270 chelonians, as a consequence of burgeoning human numbers and their insidious activities, are facing the greatest challenge of their evolutionary history.  And that there were people out there who were fighting like hell to save them.

Purchase verified that there are altruistic individuals in our ranks who, to me, are the true turtle conservation heroes.  They passionately sound the alarm, work quietly year after year as indefatigable spirits gathering hard data, or dare to venture into the new age of conservation biology.  They may passionately fight for all turtles or champion their special research species.  And many continue onward despite detractors who spend so much time attacking the real workers that whatever validity their caustic comments hold about methodology or interpretation of data falls victim to their hostile style.  I believe, however, that Purchase served to defuse many of the well-worn, old turtle politics and helped to heal old wounds.  If nothing else, we were reminded that there are so few of us to do the battle of legions that the necessities of common cause and sense had to prevail if we are to save the resources we cherish.  New alliances and marriages of talents were forged among the aforementioned conferee elements.  And these interactions have been evident in both the papers herein and the turtle conferences that have been held in the years that have followed.

Unfortunately, the four years that have elapsed since the Purchase conference have not been so kind to turtles.  Wildlife resource destruction and misguided human activity have grown at an ever-increasing pace.  In the interval between Purchase and today, more than 25 million turtles (mostly hatchling Trachemys scripta) from the United States have been exported to foreign markets, with the highest numbers going to Asian ports, then Mediterranean countries.  With them went assorted Salmonella serotypes and other pathogenic enterics, potential health threats to their keepers and to native chelonians in wetlands where the foreign turtles are liberated.  Sliders are now commonly seen in the wild alongside local aquatic turtles in southern Europe, Africa, Asia, and the United States far beyond their natural range (Branch, 1988; Ernst et al., 1994; Jenkins, 1995).  Along with the slider exports, tens of thousands of eastern and western box turtles (Terrapene carolina and T. ornata) and smaller numbers of pond turtles (Clemmys spp.) were exported.  While state, federal, and international laws now offer these taxa a greater measure of protection, attention has turned to alligator snappers (Macroclemys temminckii), Florida softshells (Apalone ferox), and map turtles (Graptemys spp.).  Exported snappers and softshells help fill food bowls in Asia as local stocks of large batagurids and trionychids vanish.

The great turtle drain in Asia kicked into high gear about the same time as the Purchase conference.  While tortoises and freshwater turtles have been subjected to human predation for centuries, recent changes in Asian economics, spawned when Chinese currency became convertible, have opened direct access to foreign markets.  A highly organized turtle trade system has replaced relatively modest subsistence hunting for family consumption and sale in local markets.  Many of Asia’s 50 tortoises and freshwater turtle species are now at risk of unbridled commercial exploitation.  Peter Paul van Dijk advised us that “what had been a barter trade has become a cash-fueled import to a vast and increasingly wealthy market.”  Le Dien Duc and Steven Broad (1995) reported that in Vietnam all but four of 21 species of that country’s freshwater turtles and tortoises are seen in the trade.  Further, these chelonians are systematically collected and routed to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.  With unregulated turtle imports from Cambodia and Lao PDR, they are sent on to China where they are used for food, in the preparation of Oriental medicines and tonics, or as religious objects released in temple pools or into questionable or unsuitable habitat in the wild.  Turtle exports from Vietnam alone are estimated (very conservatively) to be 450–750 kg/day (Le Dien Duc and Broad, 1995), which translates to 200,000 (“conceivably several times this”) living turtles and tortoises annually.  And the (Martin D. Jenkins, 1995) TRAFFIC International report “Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles: The trade in Southeast Asia” offers a very similar but holistic view of the resurgent trade between Southeast Asian countries and China.  He also points to the lack of basic natural history information and survey data on the species being harvested.  Management and recovery plans cannot be crafted without them.  For the majority of the species involved, we currently know so little about their status in the wild that it is impossible to quantify the effects of the turtle trade in Asia.  Yet the anecdotal information from the aforementioned reports, as well as that received from turtle specialists working in the region, turtle hunters, and those who collect rare forms for the exotic turtle trade, paint a picture of dramatic chelonian decline.  W. P. McCord advises me that the recently described golden-headed box turtle, Cuora aurocapitata, has vanished in nature and cannot be purchased at any price.  He also notes that Zhou’s, Pan’s, and McCord’s box turtles (C. zhoui, C. pani, and C. mccordi) are commercially extinct.  Further, the Chinese three-striped box turtle, C. trifasciata, formerly a common pet shop turtle, now sells for $500–$1,000 U.S. in Asian markets because of its rarity and perceived cancer-curing properties.  It is almost incomprehensible that Reeves’ turtle, Chinemys reevesii, has disappeared; market hunters claim it is so.  The great Asian river turtles (Batagur baska, Callagur borneoensis, and Orlitia borneensis) and the giant softshells (Chitra spp. and Pelochelys bibroni) are seriously depressed and will not long survive without heroic intervention.

Today, there is no more serious turtle crisis than that which is taking place in Southeast Asia and southern China.  Some species are very likely being lost in nature before they can be described.  And the tentacles of this trade have reached around the globe to New York, Florida, Seattle, and southern California.  Transplanted Asians have brought their Old World food customs with them to North America.  With the disappearance of imported Asian turtle species, New World species have been substituted: adult sliders (Trachemys. scripta), diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin), snappers (Chelydra serpentina), softshells (Apalone sp.) and gopher and desert tortoises (Gopherus spp.).  Some of you sounded the alarm at Purchase.  It is unlikely that any of these species can long tolerate accelerated exploitation at a level sufficient to satisfy Chinese markets of the Old and New Worlds.  Significant numbers of adult sliders and snappers are exported to the food markets of China. In some, McCord reports that they make up the bulk of the trade.

The living chelonians of the world are in perilous decline.  Causes include elevated subsistence hunting, commercial collection for food and the exotic pet market, debilitating diseases, increased pressure from growing predator populations, alien plant introductions that diminish graze quality or accelerate plant succession, dramatic mortality as a consequence of highway construction, human-set fires, habitat fragmentation, protracted droughts, and poor wildlife management and land use practices.

These stories are carried in this document.  Of the 42 extant tortoise species, four are considered “Endangered,” another is “Critically Endangered,” and 18 species are listed as “Vulnerable” in the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals.  The leatherback and six other marine turtles are “Critically Endangered” (2) and “Endangered” (3) or “Vulnerable” (1). Among freshwater turtles, 51 are considered “Threatened,” with five listed “Critically Endangered,” 17 “Endangered,” and 29 “Vulnerable.”  These are desperate times for those who minister to vanishing chelonians and their habitats.

The exotic pet trade is especially worrisome, for it preys heavily on wild populations where habitat remains intact.  Turtle harvesting usually continues at a given location until supplies are exhausted or until it is no longer profitable.  Results of long-term studies (Congdon et al., 1993; Congdon et al., 1994; Garber and Burger, 1995) indicate that the removal of modest numbers of adults and older juvenile turtles had very deleterious effects on their populations, which cannot easily be offset, and strongly suggest that long-lived chelonians cannot tolerate commercial collection.  “The concept of sustainable harvest of already-reduced populations of long-lived organisms appears to be an oxymoron” (Congdon et al., 1993).

Despite CITES and the wildlife laws of treaty signatories, the world’s exotic pet markets are poorly regulated.  Millions of chelonians are marketed each year without quarantine or adequate health assessment by the recipient nations.  The impact to local species is unknown.  Added to the long list of legally exported and imported turtles are those that move clandestinely across borders or are shipped in waves to distant destinations with the hope that officials will not seize them for wildlife law or humane standards violations.  Apparently, no species is safe from exploitation.  Not even the world’s rarest tortoise species is sacred.  In May 1996 villains broke into the Eaux et Forêts compound at the Ampijoroa Forest Reserve and made off with 75 (73 juveniles, 2 adult females) angonoka, or plowshare, tortoises, Geochelone yniphora, which had been carefully bred and nurtured by Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust for ten years.  An international alarm was sounded.  A lackluster investigation by Malagasy officials followed, and the trail ran cold in Prague—the site where the Third World Congress of Herpetology is scheduled for summer 1997.  Senior CITES and TRAFFIC officials were frustrated by this episode.  Indeed, weaknesses in the wildlife laws and actions of signatories were exposed.  This was further demonstrated by the illegal export of thousands of star tortoises, G. elegans, from India smuggled to the United Arab Emirates.  There they were “laundered” and sent on to America and Europe as “captive-bred” beauties with born-in-UAE CITES documentation.  The alleged breeding compound was a storefront address.

Whether or not turtles move legally across a border, they are very rarely placed in quarantine, even though they may have serious maladies.  They move quickly to food or pet markets without veterinary health assessment or, in the case of animals seized by authorities, to individuals or institutions where protocols for strict isolation and health screens are rarely in place.  Since the Purchase conference, very large numbers of tortoises listed on CITES Appendix I or II, including African pancake (Malacochersus tornieri) and leopard tortoises (Geochelone pardalis), Madagascan radiated (G. radiata) and spider tortoises (Pyxis arachnoides), Indian star tortoises (G. elegans), and “Russian” (Testudo horsfieldii), spur-thighed (T. graeca), Hermann’s (T. hermanni), and Egyptian tortoises (T. kleinmanni) have been seized. Chelonian specialists and humane organizations were marshaled into action.  In some cases, seized tortoises were placed with zoological institutions, and breeding programs were initiated.  Sadly, many of the animals died or had to be euthanized because of serious diseases, injury as a consequence of grossly inhumane shipping practices (see Luiijf, this volume), or it was impossible to quickly find a suitable home in a long-term care facility.  In perhaps the worst-case scenarios, tortoises were returned to the country of origin and repatriated without adequate health screens and against the advice of recognized chelonian health care specialists.

I confess to being especially chagrined by an ill-considered act (Boullay, 1995) that involved repatriation of 169 illegally imported radiated tortoises seized by customs officials in Réunion between 1989 and 1993.  A plan was hatched by France’s Ministère de l’Environnement, WWF, and Madagascar’s Direction des Eaux et Forêts to return the tortoises to Madagascar and repatriate them to the Lemur Reserve of Berenty in the southeastern region of the country.  Ignoring TFTSG veterinary and resource management counsel, the parties arranged for the tortoises to be released into the compounds at Berenty.  Counter to the published claim, the site is not well supervised, other tortoises (i.e., spider tortoises, Pyxis arachnoides) are present on the reserve, locals do exploit remnant tortoise stocks (and openly offer them for sale), and one of the two enclosures is not escape-proof (chicken wire fence <20 cm in height).  Further, the Berenty compound is largely barren compacted earth and provides little opportunity for captive propagation. And the illegal exports of radiated and spider tortoises to Europe, North America, and Asia (and almost certainly Réunion) have not declined in recent years despite the claims of customs officer vigilance.  A review of TRAFFIC-reported seizures indicates the converse is most likely true.  The bottom line is that G. radiata was not helped by this ill-conceived and poorly executed mission.  Rather, it carried the potential to introduce herpes viruses, assorted Mycoplasma sp., “internuclear coccidia,” and other viral, bacterial, and fungal pathogens and parasites to which they may have been exposed during their expatriate travels.  We’ve moved beyond the days of veterinary alchemy and gaze-in-their-eyes health check technology.  But that knowledge appears to have been lost here and in most other chelonian return-to-nature “simple fixes.”

If we consider the magnitude of the open trade in turtles and the propensity for governments to exercise single-solution or quick fixes without recognition of the potential to compound conservation problems around the world, it is very easy to conjure up doomsday scenarios for wild chelonian stocks.  Indeed, the international trade and the lack of quarantine and health screens on chelonian exports and imports make it possible for the diseases of practically any tortoise or freshwater turtle to be shared with the desert tortoises, Gopherus agassizii, in the backyard of a southern California chelonian enthusiast or with Hermann’s tortoises in a similar situation in Italy.  Thus, disease transfer from these captive stocks to their wild counterparts seems almost inevitable.

I believe that chelonians evoke a significantly higher degree of compassion in herpetologists than do taxa in other reptilian orders.  At Purchase I saw hardened scientific collectors with wobbly knees after Wil Luiijf’s graphic presentation of turtle trade horrors.  Others of us were left speechless and we remained reflective for quite some time.  What can we do?  What can we save?  We are floundering.  Zoos have developed Species Survival Plan programs, but their ark is small and spaces are at a premium and mostly reserved for the charismatic megavertebrates.  The Madagascar radiated tortoise qualifies.  It is endangered, is perhaps the world’s most beautiful tortoise, is sought-after for living herpetological collections, and has prospered in captivity.  Some 700 specimens, most hatched in captivity, are in the Species Survival Plan studbook for North America.  Unfortunately, it is the only SSP for the entire order.  While it is highly unlikely that any of these tortoises will or should be returned to Madagascar, the zoo herds are extremely useful for developing health assessment and screening protocols, nutrition studies, and reintroduction models.

Other institutions have created turtle and tortoise breeding stations, conservation undertakings, and headstarting programs in response to the dramatic decline of wild stocks, the huge numbers of displaced animals, unwanted pets, and confiscations.  Significant programs have developed for tortoises and/or freshwater turtles at centers in southern Europe, Africa, northwestern Madagascar, India, Galápagos, and western North America.  Others, for marine turtles, are scattered circumtropically.  Often these centers operate with meager funding.  Nevertheless, they typically have impressive educational programs and serve local communities well in that capacity.  Unfortunately, shortcuts are often the rule for the captive management and repatriation elements of the centers’ conservation programs—too often they lack the required herpetological and veterinary expertise, and they can ill afford to contract out for it. Health screens and genetic assessments are cut short, quarantine facilities are inadequate or absent, and repatriation protocols are developed without counsel from wildlife and veterinary science experts.  When a recovery center includes relocation, repatriation, or translocation exercises among its programs, the motives for advocating these strategies must be carefully examined through peer review before the mission (Burke, 1991; Dodd and Seigel, 1991; Reinert, 1991).  It is imperative that projects be carefully monitored so that accurate results, either positive or negative, can be published.

Despite problems, there appear to be success stories: the Galápagos tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus) captive breeding program at the Charles Darwin Research Station (see Cayot and Morillo, this volume), the western swamp tortoise (Pseudemydura umbrina) at the Western Australian Wildlife Research Centre (Kuchling, this volume), and, just maybe, Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) at South Padre Island, Texas (Pritchard, 1997).  These have been long, arduous affairs.  And for the most part, they have been the work of extraordinarily dedicated individuals, not legions of bureaucrats.  I suspect that the turtle wars will be fought and won and lost by individual “turtle men” and “turtle women” who are on divine missions from their chelonian gods to save their species.  What compels Gerald Kuchling to save the western swamp tortoise, or Lora Smith to invest two years of her life studying the last populations of plowshare tortoises in one of the most inhospitable areas on Earth?  Peter Pritchard’s name has become synonymous with the giant chelonians—Galápagos tortoise and leatherback; Kristin Berry with the desert tortoise; Roger Wood, the diamondback terrapin; and Ed Moll with giant batagurids.  And Whit Gibbons has become the dean of long-term chelonian ecological studies and Elliott Jacobson his counterpart in disease and health assessment.  All came to the Purchase conference to share their special expertise and to stir us to action.  There are no clear-cut, by-the-book conservation strategies, and battles won will all be case studies in unconventional politics and resource management.  They will be played out in a context where there is too little time for exhaustive field studies and data collection.  We’ll be winging it and extrapolating from long-term study models of North American species: Chrysemys picta, Trachemys scripta, Emydoidea blandingii, and Chelydra serpentina.  And there will still be those (perhaps even among us) who will quibble endlessly about the degree of correctness of the angle of decline in the vortex to e.

Purchase, however measured, was extraordinarily successful.  And it set a high standard for the chelonian specialist gatherings that followed. It stimulated new friendships, unconventional marriages of interests and talents, and collaboration on conservation issues of common concern.  Before the Purchase conference concluded, a plan for “Gonfaron II” (International Congress of Chelonian Conservation, Gonfaron, France, July 1995) was conceived and the need for a specialized meeting to address chelonian disease and health assessment protocols was articulated and subsequently held (Conference on Health Profiles, Health Reference Ranges, and Diseases in Desert Tortoises, Soda Springs, California, November 1996).  The New York Turtle and Tortoise Society, which played such a commanding role at the Purchase meeting, has continued the Purchase spirit through its annual seminars.

Purchase also was the birthplace of Chelonian Conservation and Biology, the Journal of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group and International Bulletin of Chelonian Research.  The need for improved synergy and communication among the specialist group and the communities it serves and with which it collaborates was clear.  Anders Rhodin stepped forward and offered a plan and a commitment to drive the communication project.  He has given generously of his time and financial resources, and with the help of his co-editor Peter Pritchard and his editorial board, he has carefully and very masterfully guided CC&B throughout its first two volumes.  The journal serves to communicate the state of our knowledge and conservation status of tortoises and freshwater turtles as well as marine turtles to a thousand subscribers who share a common interest and concern.  The eclectic initiatives that were born at Purchase and grew during the years that followed have been and will continue to be chronicled here.  CC&B is for you.  I urge you to participate however best you can.

The journal will report that chelonians are at the biggest crossroads of their 200-million-year history.  Humans are their adversaries, but we are also their champions.  Let us continue the good work of Purchase and pull together, be inventive, be creative, be daring, and do whatever we can as individuals and institutions to save our turtles and tortoises for more benevolent generations.

Literature Cited:

Boullay, S.  1995.  Repatriation of radiated tortoises, Geochelone radiata, from Réunion Island to Madagascar.  Chelon. Conserv. Biol. 1(4):319–320.
Branch, W. R.  1988.  Field Guide to the Snakes and other Reptiles of Southern Africa.  Strick Publishers, Cape Town.  326 pp.
Burke, R. L.  1991.  Relocations, repatriations, and translocations of amphibians and reptiles: Taking a broader view. Herpetologica 47:350–357.
Congdon, J. D., A. E. Durham, and R. C. Van Loben Sels.  1993.  Delayed sexual maturity and demographics of Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea blandingii): Implications for conservation and management of long-lived organisms.  Conserv. Biol. 7(4):826–833.
Congdon, J. D., A. E. Durham, and R. C. Van Loben Sels.  1994.  Demographics of common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina): Implications for conservation and management of long-lived organisms.  American Zoologist 34:397–408.
Dodd, C. K. and R. A. Seigel.  1991.  Relocation, repatriation, and translocation of amphibians and reptiles: Are they conservation strategies that work?  Herpetologica 47:336–350.
Ernst, C. H., J. E. Lovich, and R. W. Barbour.  1994.  Turtles of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.  578 pp.
Garber, S. D. and J. Burger.  1995.  A 20-yr study documenting the relationship between turtle decline and human recreation.  Ecol. Appl. 5(4):1151–1162.
Jenkins, M. D.  1995.  Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles: The Trade in Southeast Asia.  TRAFFIC International, United Kingdom.  48 pp.
Dien Duc and S. Broad.  1995.  Investigations into Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Trade in Vietnam.  IUCN Species Survival Commission, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. 34 pp.
Pritchard, P. C. H.  1997.  A new interpretation of Mexican ridley population trends.  Marine Turtle Newsletter 76:14–17.
Reinert, H. K.  1991.  Translocation as a conservation strategy for amphibians and reptiles: Some comments, concerns, and observations.  Herpetologica 47:357–363.

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