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Trouble For The World's Turtles

August 26, 1999
Savannah River Ecology Laboratory
About half of the world's turtle species face possible extinction -- due in large part to a growing demand for turtles as a popular dining delicacy and a source of traditional medicines. Sixty of the world's leading experts on freshwater turtles reached that conclusion at a special gathering in Nevada this month.

Washington, DC -- About half of the world's turtle species face possibleextinction -- due in large part to a growing demand for turtles as a populardining delicacy and a source of traditional medicines. Sixty of the world'sleading experts on freshwater turtles reached that conclusion at a specialgathering in Nevada this month.

The phenomenon described as a "turtle survival crisis" was the most urgenttopic at a prestigious international conference held in Laughlin, Nevada, August13-15. The Powdermill IV conference (named after the site of their firstgathering in Pennsylvania in 1980), also discussed freshwater turtle ecology,behavior, systematics and conservation.

"We are on the brink of losing a group of animals that has managed to survivethe upheavals of the last 200 million years, including the great extinctionepisode that eliminated the dinosaurs," said Dr. Russell Mittermeier, presidentof Conservation International and an expert on turtles.

"Turtles are apparently at comparable risk as the world's declining amphibiansyet they have not received the same level of attention," said Dr. JeffreyLovich, spokesperson for the researchers, co-organizer of the workshop, and ascientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. "Nearly half of all known species ofturtles are considered to be at risk and threatened," he said.

"We have done a good job of education the public about the plight of amphibians,but like them, reptiles such as turtles, need protection too," said Dr. WhitGibbons of the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. "Partners in Amphibian andReptile Conservation (PARC) has begun to address this whole class of threatenedanimals. If turtles are to be saved, it will have to be through cooperativeefforts, such as PARC.?

"While many people are aware that sea turtles are endangered, few realize thatmany freshwater turtles and tortoises, several with very restricted geographicranges, face an even more critical situation," said Dr. Peter Pritchard,director of the Chelonian Research Institute and vice chairman of WorldConservation Union (IUCN) Freshwater Turtle and Tortoise Specialist Group.

"Many giant tortoises on oceanic islands have already been driven to extinctionover the last three centuries because of human exploitation. So far, freshwaterturtles have come through this century with the documented extinction of justone subspecies -- a small mud turtle from Mexico. However, all sea turtles,most remaining tortoises, and many freshwater turtles are endangered orthreatened and require urgent conservation action. Some 12 turtle species areconsidered critically endangered, facing a high risk of imminent extinctionunless long-term population trends are reversed," said Dr. Anders Rhodin,director of Chelonian Research Foundation and co-sponsor of the conference.

"Turtles are threatened in the United States as well. About 55 species ofturtles, or approximately 20 percent of the world's total turtle diversity, arein the United States. Of these, 25 species (45 percent) require conservationaction, and 21 species (38 percent) are protected, or are candidates forprotection," said Lovich.

The turtle researchers found a striking contrast between the "decliningamphibian phenomenon" and the turtle survival crisis." The main causes ofdeclines in amphibians are associated with ecological change. The turtle declineseems first and foremost to be driven by human consumption. The wealthy eatturtles as a luxury food item especially in Southeast Asia. In places likeMadagascar and Mexico, they are eaten by the very poor, for subsistence. Some50 percent of the total number of threatened turtles are at risk due to thistype of exploitation.

The Southeast Asian trade is driven by an enormous and growing demand fromChina, where age-old traditions of consuming turtles for food and as medicineare growing dramatically with increased affluence and the recent convertibilityof Chinese currency. Some of the most desired species fetch as much as $1,000in Southeast Asian markets. Scientists often discover turtles that are rarelyseen in the wild in open markets and restaurants.

"Although much of this is being done in the name of tradition, it now threatensthe survival of a globally important group of animals. In light of the severityof the problem, this use of turtles should be stopped," said Mittermeier.

This trade has hit already depleted turtle populations in Southeast Asiancountries particularly hard. China's own turtles are already decimated. SeveralChinese species only discovered in the last two decades are possibly extinct dueto high demand. Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia are exporting large numbers ofturtles to China and this unsustainable trade now seems to be extending to othercountries as well. Indeed, well over 7 million turtles of several species areexported every year from the United States, as pets or food products. Turtlespecies in the United States often receive little or no protection. In all,nearly 50 species of turtles worldwide are affected by this trade.

"Of particular concern are some of the large, slow-growing river turtles, withlarge females being among the most impacted," said Pritchard. "Many turtlespecies are unlikely survive the onslaught of human exploitation and habitatloss if current trends continue. As we enter the next millennium, there is agreat risk that a number of turtles will become extinct, particularly inSoutheast Asia."

The scientists called for the following measures to address the turtle survivalcrisis:

  • Existing conservation trade laws and regulations must be enforced to ensurethorough and ongoing monitoring of the turtle trade, including numbers ofanimals, origins, and destinations.
  • Dialogues should open among international scientists and policy makers withChinese authorities and other exporting nations to encourage much more effectivenational trade controls.
  • U.S. regulatory agencies should substantially increase import and exportregulations and enforcement related to the international trade of freshwaterturtles.
  • Non-governmental conservation organizations should develop turtle conservationstrategies.
  • Captive breeding should be undertaken for some of the most endangered species,while the underlying problems that caused the declines are being addressed.

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Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. "Trouble For The World's Turtles." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 August 1999. <>.
Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. (1999, August 26). Trouble For The World's Turtles. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 22, 2017 from
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