by Whit Gibbons

October 24, 2010

I recently heard the following statement at a conference organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the conservation status of turtles: "Turtles are indeed in terrible trouble." The reason for such a bold and forbidding statement is that "49 percent, or essentially half of all modern turtles, are either already extinct or threatened with extinction." Of the 334 species of the world's known species of turtles and tortoises, which includes the 57 U.S. species, almost a dozen have become extinct. This is appalling news for anyone who likes turtles and appreciates wildlife.

The statement was made by Anders Rhodin, who is all about turtles. His talk, coauthored with Peter Paul van Dijk of Conservation International, was the keynote address. Among his turtle expert credentials, Rhodin is chair of the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and founder of the Chelonian Research Foundation (CRF). CRF publishes the world's largest professional scientific journal focused on turtles and tortoises. His role with IUCN alone qualifies him to toll the bell signaling that turtles of the world, including the United States, are in a serious plight. The turtle specialist group operates as part of the IUCN's Species Survival Commission, which seeks the advice of experts throughout the world to provide science-based conservation recommendations about groups of plants and animals. Counsel from a specialist group "is the recognized global authority" and results in the official IUCN Red List "for the determination of global threat levels" for each taxonomic group under consideration.

Aside from seven species of sea turtles, of which one or more are found in all oceans except the Antarctic, the global distribution pattern of turtles might surprise you. The regions with the highest concentration of turtle species are the Amazon basin, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and the southeastern United States. Among countries, Mexico, Australia, and Brazil each have a high diversity of turtles. And "among the nations of the world, the USA has by far the richest turtle fauna." In fact, some states, including Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Georgia, each have more turtle species than are found in all but a handful of nations.

In comparing nations in the categories of "good news" (having lots of turtles) and "bad news" (having high numbers that are threatened) China is singled out as "the nation with the highest total threat level of their turtles." China is home to many species. Unfortunately, most of them are on a steady path toward extinction in the wild. Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, India, and Malaysia also rank in the worldwide top 10 of the highest numbers of threatened species. Get the picture? China, India, and most of Southeast Asia in between are eliminating their turtles. The United States ranks 10th, which is not particularly comforting even though we have the most species to begin with. According to Rhodin, the five nations that "warrant the highest turtle conservation efforts," based on criteria that include having species found in no other nation, are China, Indonesia, the United States, India, and Mexico.

The consensus among turtle conservation biologists is that the Asian turtle trade is the primary threat to the world's turtles. Turtles as food delicacies are a social status symbol. And the notion that turtle meat has some completely unproven medicinal values also drives the market. What is the extent of turtle commerce? One investigation uncovered an exporting business that was sending "about 25 tons of live turtles per week to China and East Asia." No turtles on earth today can sustain that kind of commercial harvesting impact. Extinction is the last rung on the ladder, and too many turtles have already reached that step.

Consider this: Most of the turtles native to China are commercially extinct in the wild. The southern United States has more kinds of turtles than anywhere else in the world. Where do you think turtle poachers will be coming to get their next turtle shipment for China?

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