March 1, 2011 – By Robin Comita
According to a statement by the Turtle Conservation Coalition, between 48% and 54% of turtle and tortoise species are endangered. Although turtle populations have been declining for many years, a recently published list of the 25+ most endangered turtle and tortoise species has captured the attention of multiple environmental and activist groups. The coalition predicts that without drastic conservation efforts, these species will become extinct within a few decades.
The Turtle Conservation Coalition has identified illegal capture and trade, along with habitat loss and destruction, as the primary cause for their plight. Of the 25 species listed, 17 are from Asia, 3 are from Africa, 3 are from South America, one is from North America and one is from Australia. In other words, more than two-thirds of the most endangered turtle species are found in Asia, where the illegal market for endangered turtles is substantial.
Despite efforts to crack down on the illegal capture and trading of turtles in the early 1990s, Asian markets for the species are prospering. As a species of turtle is driven closer to extinction, merchants can charge a higher price for the rare animal. Efforts to contain the Asian turtle trade were weak or only briefly effective as dealers have found loopholes in the system.
Many turtles are wanted for food, pets, manufacturing combs, and perceived medicinal qualities. Although hunting wild turtles may have sufficed in the past, population growth has caused demand to outpace supply. Some efforts to breed or farm turtles have been successful, but wild turtles can often fetch a higher price. Some rare species are sold for tens of thousands of dollars, and others are rumored to retail for hundreds of thousands.
Among the most highly valued species is the golden coin turtle, also known as the Chinese three-striped box turtle. The profit made from catching and selling a single three-striped box turtle is enough for some to afford a house. The turtle is thought to cure cancer, and makeshift traps in its habitat abound. Populations living in the wild have decreased more than 50%, and it is now ranked the 9th most endangered turtle.
However, the Pinta or Abingdon Island Giant Tortoise tops the list as the most endangered turtle. Nicknamed “Lonesome George,” it is believed to be the last of its kind. Second in danger is the Red River/Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle, of which only 4 known individuals remain. Of the four, three are male and only one female. Conservationists are attempting to breed a male with the last female in captivity to ensure the survival of the species.
Turtles often reach reproductive age when they are 15 to 20 years old. After reaching maturity, they lay eggs every year for the next 30 or 40 years. However, if captured or killed before turning 15, their chances of reproducing are virtually extinguished. This lengthy period of adolescence leaves turtles especially susceptible to endangerment due to human activities.
Turtles are now more endangered than mammals, birds, amphibians, rays or sharks and among vertebrates they are matched only by the primates. An estimated 300 million turtles are consumed each year in Asia alone. Approximately 100,000 wild turtles are caught and consumed during a religious holiday in Bangladesh. Large numbers also become bycatch each year, and consequently die or are disposed of improperly.
The Turtle Conservation Coalition, which is an alliance of at least ten separate organizations, is approaching conservation in a series of steps. Step one, Preventing Imminent Extinction, is completed. The second step, Expanding the Focus, is currently underway. The final step is Securing the Future of turtles and tortoises around the world.
In response to the new list of endangered turtles, Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation(PARC) is promoting a new, year long awareness campaign titled Year of the Turtle. The campaign seeks to raise awareness through education, contests and activities about endangered turtles, while offering methods for supporting their survival. Other programs, such as the Turtle Survival Alliance, use a “boots on the ground” approach to conservation and recovery programs. Dozens of groups around the world have mobilized around the cause, many of which work with the Turtle Conservation Coalition to spread the word about the endangered status of half the world’s turtles.