Moving fast for turtles to stay ahead of Tauzin

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1996:

NEW YORK, N.Y.––Manhattan is a long
way from Louisiana, but expert intervention by the
New York Turtle and Tortoise Society on March 21
brought 10,000 Louisiana box turtles their biggest break
since they hatched.
As a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service memo put
it, “The Office of Scientific Authority is unable to find
that export of Gulf Coast box turtles and three-toed box
turtles collected in Louisiana will not be detrimental to
the survival of either subspecies. Therefore OSA advises
that an export quota of zero be set for 1996 for box
turtles,” who previously could be taken only from
Louisiana.


Political support for the New York Turtle and
Tortoise Society effort came from the New Orleansbased
activist group Legislation In Support of Animals
and the Humane Society of the U.S., who jointly threatened
to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service if the
exports were allowed––but it was the scientific testimony
of the New York-based turtle experts that saved the
day. There was no high-profile “Save the turtles” campaign;
turtles, as yet, have no constituency.
Among the oldest species on earth, the most
intelligent of reptiles, capable of living individual lives
longer than those of humans and parrots, the runnersup
for longevity among land animals, turtles are loved
by everyone––and that’s just the problem. The half of
the world that doesn’t love to eat turtles loves to keep
them as presumed low-maintenance pets, sentencing
hundreds of thousands per year to death––if they survive
transport––in European gardens, where they typically
starve or succumb so slowly to fungal infections
that their purchasers never realize they are ill until they
stop slowly moving and rot. Hundreds of thousands
more die of poor feeding or neglect in Asian fishbowls.
Just enough lucky individuals are tossed away
into habitats where they can survive that feral red-eared
sliders have become a threat to native European turtles
in parts of France, Germany, Belgium, and The
Netherlands. Feral snapping turtles have reputedly
menaced swimmers in southern France, though the
species’ potential threat to humans looms much larger
in Chuck Berry’s 1973 hit song “My Ding-a-ling” than
in real life: there isn’t even one case in the ANIMAL
PEOPLE files of a snapping turtle seriously injuring
anyone who wasn’t trying to kill the turtle.
Red-eared sliders
A November 1994 HSUS “preliminary report”
titled Live Freshwater Turtle and Tortoise Trade in the
United States traces the rise and fall of the “pet” turtlebreeding
industry during the 1960s and 1970s, when
every variety store had a turtle tank, selling baby redeared
sliders whose typical lifespan, due to poor care,
was less than six months. When the domestic sale of
turtles under four inches long was banned in 1975, to
protect children from salmonella poisoning, an industry
that had produced up to 13 million one-to-two-inch redeared
sliders per year collapsed.
About 50 turtle breeders survived by exporting
turtles––as many as six million a year. That wasn’t
forbidden. In 1993, South Korea bought 1.4 million
red-eared sliders; Italy and Japan each bought more
than 650,000; France took 500,000.
The trade goes both ways: U.S. dealers and
fanciers imported about 124,000 turtles, of at least 15
species, all but one of them listed as “threatened” under
the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species. Yet this was a sharp drop from the nearly 80
species imported into the U.S. in 1970-1971. About 38
turtle species are available in the U.S. by mail order,
about two-thirds of them North American natives.
While captive-bred red-eared sliders are the
mainstay of the turtle trade, the real money is in the
scarcer species––the “collector” market, including
some serious herpetologists and a lot of people who just
want a conversation piece.
Redfaced rednecks
That’s where the Louisiana box turtles come
in––and go out. The good old boys in the bayous have
been looking for something else to kill for a living without
having to work too hard ever since the market for
muskrat and nutria pelts collapsed almost a decade ago
and the world hasn’t proved eager to eat alligator steak.
They shipped out 71,000 box turtles, 1991-1993, trying
to beat the anticipated listing of the box turtle on
Appendix II of CITES––the “threatened” list––at the
November 1994 CITES meeting.
Considered almost a done deal by those who
naively thought the fate of the box turtle would be
determined by scientific evidence, the listing never
happened. Meanwhile, strings were pulled to boost the
capture and export quotas. The March 21 USFWS box
turtle memo admits the 1995 quotas were “based to a
large extent on the recommendation of the Louisiana
Reptile and Amphibian Task Force,” formed by state
law in 1992 to promote the reptile and amphibian capture
industry. “Although minimal quantitative data
were available,” the memo continues, “it was the a pri –
ori opinion of the Task Force that box turtle populations
in Louisiana were neither endangered nor threatened.”
Among other things, the good old boys held
that Gulf Coast box turtles hatch multiple broods, like
some Florida box turtles, and therefore could purportedly
withstand greater pressure on their population––
but scientific literature, the memo noted, now indicates
that even among the Florida box turtles, “only a small
percentage may exhibit multiple broodedness, and
clutch sizes are smaller than those of more northern
populations. In and of itself, multiple-broodedness is
not evidence of increased reproductive potential.”
Though the March 21 memo slams the
assumptions formerly used to warrant exporting box
turtles, Allen Salzberg of the New York Turtle &
Tortoise Society isn’t yet ready to celebrate. “Our work
for the box turtles in Louisiana is not over,” he told
ANIMAL PEOPLE on April 8. “The Louisiana Task
Force is considering appealing the decision to the
Office of Management Authority, and then the head of
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If that doesn’t
work, they are considering suing. Also, there are
rumors of some of the local politicians getting involved,
including Congressman Billy Tauzin, who is known as
one of the most anti-environmental people in Congress.
The two Senators from Louisiana are not far behind.”
Salzberg asks animal people who care about
turtles to write to John G. Rogers Jr., Acting Head,
USFWS, with a copy to Kenneth B. Stansell, Head of
the Office of Management Authroity, both c/o USFWS,
4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington, VA 22203.

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