Though turtles have lumbered successfully through 300 million years of life on Earth, even surviving the Great Extinction that snuffed out the dinosaurs, it seems they have met their match: the human appetite.
Ecologists say rising demand for freshwater turtles is pushing many species toward extinction, a problem that is particularly bad in Southeast Asia, where the animals are being captured by the millions to satisfy China’s hunger for turtles.
“We are at the heart of the storm,” says Peter Paul van Dijk of Traffic, an international group that monitors trade in wild plants and animals. “If present trends continue, we would expect two-thirds of the species to disappear from the wild in the next two decades.”
Van Dijk estimated that 10 million turtles are trafficked each year from Southeast Asia. And that’s a conservative estimate, he said. Of the 89 turtle species found in southern Asia, 14 are already threatened with extinction.
At a regional conference on the freshwater turtle trade last weekend in Phnom Penh, wildlife experts from 16 countries spoke with optimism about conservation efforts but acknowledged it may be too late in many cases.
“There’s almost nothing known about the life history of turtles in Southeast Asia,” said Steve Platt of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Cambodia program. “And these species are going to go extinct before we know anything.”
With demand so high, trafficking turtles is lucrative work. And because of the general lack of laws to protect turtles, trafficking is easy work, too. In Cambodia, there is no legislation that specifically mentions wild turtles.
Unlike some animals that reproduce quickly, turtles cannot afford to be aggressively hunted. They take a long time to reach sexual maturity and many die before adulthood.
“Once a turtle reaches a certain size, there’s virtually nothing that can get at it—that’s changed now with humans,” says Kurt Buhlmann, a turtle expert from the US.
In Cambodia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, turtles are often captured by villagers hoping to supplement meager incomes. They sell the turtles to a middleman who ships them to markets in China.
From Cambodia, turtles are taken overland to the Vietnam border and through Pochentong Airport.
Villagers who catch turtles usually earn no more than a few dollars for their work. But in Chinese markets, live turtles start at $10 and prices rise quickly for species in demand. The golden coin turtle sells at $1,500 for a 1-kg animal.
The turtles are made into soup and their shells are ground into powder, used in traditional medicine as treatment for everything from sore legs to cancer.
Wildlife experts learned the extent of the trafficking problem two years ago when they found several species of turtles not native to China for sale in Chinese markets.
China, they say, has eaten most of its turtles and is now looking elsewhere to satisfy demand. This has been made easier in recent years as the country opens its borders to trade and Chinese have more money to spend.
There are no figures for how many turtles are imported to China because the trade is not regulated. In Hong Kong, where statistics are kept, 200 tons of turtles were imported in 1991. By last year, it had jumped to 2,000 tons.
“And Hong Kong is actually not a major consumer of these turtles,” said Michael Lau, of Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong. “You can see the magnitude of the problems is escalating. If you harvest them at this rate, the turtle will disappear.
“We’re eating them into extinction,” he said.
Through four days of meetings at the Phnom Penh turtle conference, scientists crafted strategies for conserving turtle populations, from pushing for better laws to educating airport personnel on identifying and intercepting endangered species.
Along with reducing demand, the biggest obstacle so far in stopping the trade has been persuading poor villagers that they are better off conserving turtles than hunting them.
“People are slowly starting to realize on their own that turtles are disappearing,” said Bryan Stuart of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Laos program. “They’re realizing that their cash crop is going to be over very quickly.”
To give turtles more legal protection, the conference participants are hoping to have all 89 of southern Asia’s turtle species listed with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
For most species, the listing would not make trafficking illegal. But it would require governments to keep accurate figures of how many turtles are caught, exported and imported, giving scientists a clearer idea of which species are most threatened.
But this or any other measure is just a small step, the scientists emphasized.
“We’re not suggesting there’s one act that’s going to solve the problem; there’s a whole range of things you have to do all at once,” said Buhlmann, the turtle expert from the US. “Changing the opinions and needs of a lot of people is difficult, but keeping on at this level is going to lead to the extinction of 70 species.”
The decline in turtles, Buhlmann said, “is like rivets in a plane.”
“You might lose one or two, but you’re not going to pull out all the rivets and expect to fly.”