Although it’s not widely known, turtles have become one of the most heavily trafficked animals among Asia’s endangered species.
According to the Swiss-based World Wildlife Fund (WWF), six of the world’s seven endangered or critically endangered marine turtle species can be found in the Asia Pacific Region.
One example highlights the problem: Asia’s illegal trade in the Black Spotted Turtle is “spiraling out of control,” according to TRAFFIC, a wildlife monitoring organization based in Cambridge, UK.
A new TRAFFIC study shows that more than 1,000 of these freshwater turtles were seized by police and customs officials over a two-year period, exceeding numbers recorded during a previous six-year study.
The trade is designated as illegal under an international agreement, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, which has been agreed to by 182 governments.
But in the three leading source countries of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, traffickers are still finding ways of hunting down and shipping many black spotted turtles to destinations where they are highly valued.
Leading destinations include Hong Kong and mainland China, the study done by TRAFFIC says.
Several years ago, traditional Chinese views about the alleged medicinal benefits of the black spotted turtles’ meat had created a high demand for them in mainland China and Hong Kong.
Unscientific traditional Chinese beliefs
In an analysis published two years ago on Mongabay, an environmental website, Erin Crandall described how a newly affluent Chinese middle class had adopted traditional views regarding the value of turtles’ meat.
Mongabay’s headlines summed it up this way: “The threat of traditional medicine: China’s boom may mean doom for turtles…traditional mindset fueling demand for wild turtles, driving some species toward extinction.”
Crandall notes that “for thousands of years turtles have been used in Chinese traditional medicine to treat a variety of ailments and diseases.”
Now, she said, thanks to economic growth, more Chinese families can afford to purchase turtles.
And, despite a lack of scientific evidence, she notes, many believe that turtle meat maintains youthful beauty in women and improves sexual performance in men.
Chinese chefs have also had a long history of studying how best to cook freshwater turtles. They seem to agree that to create the best turtle soup, one should cook all parts of a live turtle, or as many as three turtles, including the shell and skin.
Nothing is wasted. One well-known chef recommends that blood, urine, and bile be consumed as beverages.
But now comes some good news from China.
TRAFFIC’s report reveals a new trend: Many of today’s Chinese prefer to keep turtles alive as exotic pets.
In Chinese culture, turtles have long been regarded as symbols of longevity, tenacity, and good fortune.
Some turtles live for 30 to 40 years. And larger ones can even live to be 70 to 80 years old.
And a good number of them manage to survive being packed onto commercial airline flights on their way to new homes.
Possible solutions to the trafficking problem
In its report, TRAFFIC recommends that enforcement of anti-trafficking laws be enhanced at identified trade hotspots, such as Karachi in Pakistan, Chennai in India, and various places along the India-Bangladesh border such as Kolkata.
The largest seizure in the group’s study occurred in Kolkata in May 2014, when authorities seized some 1,000 turtles in a single crackdown.
It should be noted that Pakistan has not completely ignored the trafficking problem.
In March, 2015, a “Regional Symposium on Sea Turtle Conservation in Asia” was organized by the Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Karachi.
It was held under a “Saving the Endangered Turtles on Coastal Areas of Pakistan” program, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by the IUCN Pakistan’s Nature Conservancy.
Other hotspots include the Dhaka and Hong Kong airports, mainland Chinese and Hong Kong ports, and Thai and Malaysian transportation hubs.
By checking reports of seizures of trafficked turtles, TRAFFIC determined that many had been shipped on commercial air flights.
Research showed that an estimated 47 percent of documented smuggling incidents involved such flights.
So airports are leading hubs in the trade.
Other key recommendations made by the monitoring organization:
TRAFFIC also says that more study needs to be done on Southeast Asian hubs, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.
The group says that over time, researchers noted that Thailand had been heavily implicated.
India, however, is the country credited with the highest number of seizures.
Seizure analysis for the period 2014-2016 shows India accounted for 29 percent of all seizures of all types of turtles, with Hong Kong placing second during that period.
International smuggling rings and organized crime networks are behind some of the trade in smuggled turtles, the TRAFFIC report says.
In 2017, in a high-profile case, Indian authorities arrested a Singapore-based Indian turtle dealer, who was described as the “Kingpin” of India’s illegal turtle trade.
Manivannan Murugeswan was wanted by the Madhya Pradesh forest department’s special task force, which sent a four-member team to Singapore and then flew the trader back to Chennai and presented him before a special court.
Murugesan was reported to have links with smugglers in Thailand, Malaysia, Macau, Hong Kong, China, and the East African island nation of Madagascar.
The Hindustan Times, meanwhile, reported that another smuggler revealed a trafficking network across India that smuggled rare turtles out of the country to hubs in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
On May 15, 2017, customs officials at Malaysia’s Senai International Airport foiled an attempt to smuggle hundreds of endangered ploughshare and radiated tortoises into Malaysia from Madagascar.
Good news from Asia and elsewhere
The good news: The world seems to be full of turtle-loving volunteers who are helping to rescue, protect, and nurture endangered turtles and tortoises.
And non-profit organizations are providing solid research pointing to trouble spots where rescue efforts are most needed.
Turtle Survival Centers have meanwhile been established in a number of Asian countries.
Even a poor country such as Myanmar, where a trafficked turtle can bring a relatively high price, a survival association has gradually learned how to raise 175 star tortoises that were recovered from a trafficker’s truck.
The truck was stopped just before it crossed Myanmar’s border into neighboring China.
And in Madagascar, a major source of turtles illegally exported to Asia, a turtle survival center appears to be thriving and building public awareness regarding the need to preserve turtles and tortoises.
In the southern part of the Indian Ocean country, one Canadian and three American zoos plus a conservation fund have been providing grants to bring the area up to international standards for saving confiscated tortoises.
At the same time, a number of nonprofit organizations are acting around the world to counter the poaching of turtles and tortoises.
In late May of this year, WildAid, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group, launched a campaign to reduce the demand for sea turtle products in China.
WildAid released a series of TV messages and billboards featuring popular Chinese actor Liu Ye and his wife Anais Martane to raise awareness of the threats to turtles while calling on the public to stop buying sea turtle products.
Simply stop buying turtle projects
Speaking at a launch event, Liu Ye said “we can all do something really simple to help protect sea turtles, and that is to simply not to buy sea turtle products.”
Liu said that Chinese should also reduce their use of plastics and keep plastic waste away from coastlines, where turtles can sometimes be found entangled in the waste.
WildAid said that all seven of the turtle species designated as endangered or vulnerable face a wide range of threats, including habitat loss, ocean pollution, plastic debris, and people who eat their meat and eggs or purchase products made from their shells.
WildAid has also partnered with numerous Chinese government agencies to introduce new measures that will both protect the sea turtles’ habitat and reduce the demand for sea turtle products.
In recent years, meanwhile, illegal trade networks have been working around the South China Sea and the border areas of China and Vietnam.
The shells they gather from Hawksbill Turtles’ shells are made into jewelry and other items for sale to Chinese tourists.
A WildAid survey of 1,500 people in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beihai, and Sanya found that 17 percent of respondents had purchased sea turtle products in the past, and 22 percent had expressed an interest in buying more in the future.
Many products were purchased upon the recommendation of tour group guides.
Only 57 percent of respondents knew that it was illegal to purchase sea turtle products in China.
Meanwhile, already threatened by trafficking, habitat loss, and pollution, marine turtles face other dangers associated with warming seas.
But World Wildlife researchers are on the case.
They’ve been tracking turtles by satellite to discover how their migration habits might be affected by higher sea temperatures.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.