Where Have All the Turtles Gone?

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Where Have All the Turtles Gone?

By Susan Tellem, American Tortoise Rescue
August 2008

For 200 million years, much longer than the dinosaur, turtles have roamed the earth in search of food, a protective habitat, a safe place to hibernate and, of course, love. These gentle creatures have hardly changed in their journey across the millenniums but something deadly is creeping up on them.

Because of habitat destruction, the exotic food demand and the relentless pet trade, biologists and others who study reptiles predict their disappearance in 50 years or so. It’s hard to imagine that this incredible survivor will be gone without a trace.

Jeffrey E. Lovich, National Biological Service, examined population trends in the U.S. He notes that there are few long-term studies. But of the 55 native turtle species in the United States and its offshore waters, 25 (45%) require conservation, and 21 (38%) are protected or are candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Of the remaining 46 turtle species (aquatic and semi-aquatic forms), 16 (35%) require conservation action. The percentage of U.S. turtles requiring conservation action (45%) is similar to that for the rest of the world (41%).

Of course, we can blame overpopulation and global warming and all the other ills affecting our planet. Those in turtle conservation point to a more economic threat to the world’s turtles, especially in Asia. A workshop on the Asian Turtle Trade was held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in December 1999. One of the recommendations was that all Asian species of freshwater turtles should be considered for listing on at least Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora).

Why Asia? Many Asians eat turtles and think that they have sexual or medicinal powers. So millions of U.S. turtles are being exported for food since, I like to say, the Asian nations have eaten all of theirs.

According to an article in the Houston Chronicle on April 15, 2007, writer Shannon Tompkins recently visited China where she was offered, live and otherwise, turtle in various dishes. This trip peaked her interest in the turtle trade. She discovered something those of us in the turtle rescue business have known for years...tens of thousands of Texas turtles are ripped from the wild and shipped to Asia.

Poppy (top) and Tank (bottom), living out the rest of their happy lives at American Tortoise Rescue

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department which handles the permits for these transactions, reports that each year about 95,000 wild-caught Texas turtles are being collected for food and for the pet trade. Snapping turtles, red eared sliders, softshells and others are the most popular for the live food markets. According to the Houston Chronicle article, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “256,638 Texas turtles were exported through the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, alone, from 2002 through 2005” and the majority were destined to end up on a plate.

This same humungous harvest goes on in the southern states of the U.S., Mexico and elsewhere every day throughout the year. It is no wonder that we may not see any more turtles in the years to come.

But turtles are not just being eaten in Asia. With a burgeoning immigrant population in the United States—many who do not or will not shed their familiar habits—we are seeing live food markets springing up throughout the U.S. in every major city as well as small ones wher there are concentrations of Asian immigrants. Based on the idea that fresh is better (Hello? Refrigerator anyone?), the demand for fresh killed turtles is on the rise throughout the U.S. further depleting the "supply." Current “immigrant bashing” sentiment often prevents enforcement of existing protective laws and/or confiscation of captured animals.

At the markets, both here and in Asia, turtles are kept on their backs, with no water or food, often in direct sunlight. Children are seen touching them, risking salmonella, or hitting them with sticks, etc. U.S. cities with cruelty laws do not enforce them even though there are obvious violations.

Some cities require that the turtle be killed on site at the market but this is not enforced, which means that the turtle will suffer in the hands of the buyer. It is hard to kill a turtle quickly. While American Tortoise Rescue and other groups have been aggressively working to put an end to this barbaric practice, we have been thwarted by the inaction, and in many cases disinterest, of government bodies that are supposed to conserve wildlife, not throw it to the lions.

What can you do? Sign every petition that aims to protect wildlife. Protest at Fish & Game and U/S. Fish & Wildlife meetings. Report cruelty if you see it. Don’t buy turtles at pet stores—adopt instead. Volunteer. Be loud and vocal and relentless in the fight. And pray.


Susan Tellem and her husband Marshal Thompson are co-founders of American Tortoise Rescue (ATR) http://www.tortoise.com  located in in Malibu, California. ATR is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation founded in 1990 to provide for the rescue, rehabilitation, adoption and protection of all species of tortoise and turtle. ATR offers permanent sanctuary to abandoned and lost tortoises, as well as those that are confiscated from law enforcement and require temporary housing. Foundlings that cannot be adopted because of ill health remain in the care of American Tortoise Rescue for the remainder of their lives. During the past years, ATR has adopted out more than 3,000 turtles to caring homes.  

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