Endangered Turtles Vanish into Asian Cooking Pots

WASHINGTON, DC, May 15, 2003 (ENS) - The belief that soup and jelly made from the Chinese three-striped box turtle can cure cancer has reduced populations of this species to a few remnants in Northern Vietnam and China. Tons of live turtles of various species are imported each day to southern China from the Southeast Asia region, with more than 10 million individual turtles traded each year.

In Indonesia, the Sulawesi forest turtle is already critically endangered after being known to science for less than 10 years.

This pattern of threats to the world's turtles is documented by the Turtle Conservation Fund (TCF), which today released its first list of the World's Top 25 Most Endangered Turtles to highlight the survival crisis facing these animals. At least 200 of the 300 living species of tortoises and freshwater turtles are threatened and require conservation action, the organization warns.

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Chinese three-striped box turtle (Photo courtesy World Chelonian Trust)
"With nine of the world's turtle species and subspecies having already become extinct at the hands of modern man, and fully two-thirds of the remaining species under great threat, we have a crisis that needs to be addressed immediately," said Anders Rhodin, director of the Chelonian Research Foundation, chair of the TCF and co-chair of the World Conservation Union Species Survival Commission's (IUCN/SSC) Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group.

"The collaborative efforts of the Turtle Conservation Fund and its alliance partner organizations and quick implementation of an effective conservation action plan can help ensure their long term survival," Rhodin said.

The TCF list focuses on 25 species at highest risk. The list is based on the World Conservation Union's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, as well as general consensus between TCF's three partner organizations - the Center For Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International, The Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, and the IUCN/SSC Turtle Survival Alliance.

"Many of the critically endangered species are at great risk of going extinct within the next 20 years unless we take immediate action," said Kurt Buhlmann, Conservation International's director for the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science Turtle Program, and executive director for the Turtle Conservation Fund.

"The Turtle Conservation Fund is a strategic partnership that combines the strengths of our organizations and will enable us to act quickly to avoid further extinctions and ensure sustainable populations of wild species," Buhlmann said.

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Soft shelled turtle soup (Photo courtesy FoodNo1)
The harvest of turtles to meet demand from the Asian food and traditional medicine market has wiped out natural populations near the consumer source in China. More than half of Asia's 90 turtle species are endangered or critically endangered, the expert group warned.

Harvesters have reached into the surrounding Southeast Asian regions and are now beginning to impact turtles in North America, Africa, and Europe, according to the Turtle Conservation Fund.

Other threats include development, habitat destruction and fragmentation, and unregulated pet trade collection.

Turtles are also affected by other human activities, such as invasive alien species, chemical and hormonal pollution, gradual global warming, and various illnesses due to introduced pathogens, such as the upper respiratory tract disease affecting North American desert tortoises.

Twelve species on the Top 25 list survive in Asia, two species are in South Africa, three in Madagascar, one in the Mediterranean, two in Australia, two in South America, one in Mesoamerica, and two in the United States.

Twenty-one of the 25 endangered turtles species occur in 11 of the world's 25 biodiversity hotspots - areas which house the greatest number of species yet face the most severe threats.

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This Yunnan Box Turtle is a museum specimen. The species is thought to be extinct. (Photo courtesy World Chelonian Trust)
The turtles' survival will depend on adequate protection of these hotspots where small populations still remain - Indo-Burma, Sundaland, the Philippines, Wallacea, Succulent Karoo, Cape Floristic Region, Madagascar & Indian Ocean Islands, Mediterranean Basin, Southwestern Australia, Choco-Darien-Western Ecuador, and Mesoamerica.

"Turtles have been around since before many dinosaurs walked the planet and have survived relatively unchanged for about 250 million years," said Conservation International president Russell Mittermeier. "But mankind's actions have brought them to the brink of extinction. It's our responsibility to bring them back."

In order to implement its five year Global Action Plan to conserve these endangered species, the TCF intends to raise an estimated $5.6 million.

Plans include trade regulation enforcement, an increase in illegal trade confiscations, and captive breeding using turtles confiscated from smugglers.

Ecologically sound turtle farming for commercial purposes to lessen pressures on wild populations is supported under the TCF plan.

Some endangered turtles will be relocated and returned to their countries of origin.

TCF plans include further field research, development of country support for trade monitoring, establishment of rescue centers, and sustainable harvest programs, public outreach and educational programs,

Experts will identify and establish of protected areas that take tortoises and freshwater turtles into consideration.

"While the Turtle Conservation Fund plan offers a glimmer of hope to some of the world's most endangered turtles, for some, it is already too late," said Rick Hudson, co-chair of the IUCN Turtle Survival Alliance, and a member of the Steering Committee of the TFTSG.

"Unless urgent conservation action is taken, many more species may go the way of Lonesome George," he said, referring to the sole surviving Galapagos Abingdon Island tortoise. As the last of his species, George is destined to remain a bachelor for the rest of his life - about another 100 years.