Hunted turtles need more than a shell

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2009:
LITTLE ROCK, TALLAHASSEE–The Florida Fish & Wildlife
Conserv-ation Commission on April 15, 2009 unanimously voted to ban
capturing or killing freshwater turtles. The proposal–if ratified
in June 2009–would bring into effect the strongest restriction on
turtle hunting in the U.S.
But the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission on March 29, 2009
rejected a proposal to stop “commercial harvest, sales and export”
of turtles.
Commission director Scott Hender-son acknowledged that, “We
have seen a lot of pressure on turtles in the last three years.”
The most recent available data indicates that Arkansas turtle
hunters are exporting about 200,000 turtles per year. However,
Henderson told the Conway Log Cabin Democrat, “Our staff
recommendation is that it is not an emergency and should be included
in our regular fishing regulations process.”

Catch limits may be discussed later this year, but pressure
on the Arkansas turtle population will not be eased this spring.
Audubon Society of Central Arkansas member Bill Shepherd of
Little Rock testified that turtles in Arkansas are in trouble from
multiple directions. “Mortality of eggs and hatchlings is immense,”
Shepherd explained. “Fire ants, feral pigs, raccoons and other
predators eat the turtle eggs.”
But mentioning the threats from other species may have helped
to give the commissioners a pretext for delay in addressing the human
threat, while continuing a multi-year effort promote more pig
“In the petition to stop taking of turtles in Arkansas,”
noted the Log Cabin Democrat, “the comment was made that commercial
harvest of turtles has been banned in Illinois, North Carolina,
Alabama and Mississippi. Texas has banned it on public waters.
Oklahoma has begun a three-year moratorium on taking turtles from
public waters,” as of May 2008, “and Georgia is preparing
legislative action on taking turtles.”
State after state is beginning to restrict turtle hunting
because live market demand from China has put U.S. turtles under the
same kind of sudden intensified pressure that has recently extirpated
turtles from much of Southeast Asia.
But the newly enacted restrictions mostly have loopholes that
weaken enforcement if a turtle hunter is not actually caught in the
act. Texas, for instance, forbade hunting turtles in public waters
in 2007, but allowed hunters to continue taking snapping turtles,
soft-shell turtles, and red-eared sliders from private property.
This allows anyone caught with a bag of turtles to claim the turtles
were caught on private property– and allows Texas turtle hunters to
continue to export about 100,000 turtles per year.
“The demand pits ancient culture against modern conservation
and increasingly threatens turtle populations worldwide,” assessed
Los Angeles Times reporter Kim Christensen in December 2008. “As
Asian economies boomed, more and more people began buying turtle,
once a delicacy beyond their budgets. Driven in particular by
Chinese demand, Asian consumption has all but wiped out wild turtle
populations not just in China, but in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and
elsewhere in the region. Now conservationists fear that the U.S.
turtle population could be eaten into extinction. In 1999, an
international consortium of biologists and others estimated that the
Asian turtle trade had grown to about 10 million of the reptiles a
year,” or just under the sum of current U.S. exports.
“By many accounts, demand has since grown dramatically,”
Christensen found. “Those who catch turtles typically use baited
hooks on trotlines, some stretching for miles. Their catch is
bagged boxed and shipped live to U.S. customers on both coasts and
the Gulf of Mexico–and to Asian gateways such as Hong Kong and

Hunting vs. roadkills

Within less than a decade turtle hunting has become the
greatest threat to the survival of freshwater turtles in the U.S.
since the invention of automobiles added roadkills to the hazards
they must evade in moving among ponds, ditches, and waterways in
their annual search for a mate.
Motor vehicles kill about 1.6 million turtles per year in the
U.S., ANIMAL PEOPLE estimated in 1994, by comparing data from a
variety of regional and local counts. Though traffic in turtle
habitat has increased, the roadkill toll has probably dropped since
then. Efforts to modify roads to protect turtles at favored crossing
points have helped, but mainly there are just fewer turtles to make
the crossings.
More than 31.7 million live turtles, nearly 11 million per
year, were exported legally from the U.S. between November 2002 and
November 2005, according to the World Chelonian Trust.
“Animals exported from the United States have four primary
destinations,” World Chelonian Trust director Darrell Senneke
reported in 2006. “The first is directly to the food markets of
China and Southeast Asia. The second is to Asian turtle farms where
the majority are ‘grown out,’ as in our cattle feed lots, and then
sent to the markets. The third is for breeding stock in turtle
farms. The fourth is for the huge pet markets around the world.”
Only about 737,000 of the turtles exported alive from the
U.S. were wild-captured–but turtle farming also cuts into the wild
“Baby turtles are being sent to China,” Iowa Department of
Natural Resources conservation officer Joe Fourdyce told Des Moines
Register reporter Juli Probasco-Sowers after the July 2008 arrest of
two men for allegedly catching turtles by illegal means, with a net
lacking an identification tag. Facing fines of up to $2,299 apiece,
the men reportedly intended to tell their catch to breeders. The
breeders would collect the eggs from the captured turtles, hatch the
eggs in an incubator, and sell the hatchlings to China.
As well as using wild-caught breeding stock, some turtle
farmers use eggs or hatchlings collected from wild nests.
“Arguments can be made both for and against this trade,”
Senneke acknowleged. “Some people opine that the shipment and sales
of American species produced in large numbers actually save
endangered foreign species by taking their place in the food and pet
markets. Others argue that the shipment and subsequent release of
American species,” either through accidental escapes or deliberate
release as a religious ritual, “do tremendous damage to the ecology
of countries around the globe with breeding colonies of high
fecundity American turtles competing with possibly endangered native
species. Still other people will argue that there is no such thing
as an ethically acceptable trade in turtles whatsoever.”

Slow recovery–or none

Unlike most hunted species, Senneke pointed out, turtles
recover slowly from intensified predation, if at all.
“Turtles are very long lived animals,” Senneke wrote, “who,
under normal conditions, have a combination of high adult survival
and very low hatchling and juvenile survival. Low recruitment into a
population is offset by the long breeding life of the adults under
normal circumstances. When an adult turtle is removed from the wild
it is not just that turtle who is removed, but also the reproductive
potential of that animal over a breeding life that may exceed 50
years. Research has shown that there is no compensation of increased
hatchling survival in response to a reduced adult population. As a
result, removal of even a few adults from a population can result in
the decline and eventual loss of the entire population.”
Only about 50 people are involved in catching freshwater
turtles in Florida, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation
Commission believes, but they sell about 560,000 pounds of turtle
per year, mostly softshell species, for between $0.75 and $1.40 per
But the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission may
have underestimated the numbers of people trying to cash in while
turtles can still be found in the wild– and their impact. In Iowa,
for example, where reportedly just four turtle trapping licenses
were sold in 1998, 176 were sold in 2008. The volume of turtles
caught in Iowa increased from 29,000 pounds in 1987 to 235,000 pounds
in 2007, Iowa State University ecology professor Fred Janzen told
Marco Santana of Associated Press.
Several states lack even a method of estimating hunting
pressure on their turtle populations.
“Because there are no regulations,” explained Joey Holleman
of the Columbia State in March 2008, “South Carolina officials say
it’s impossible to come up with an accurate number of turtles taken
from the Palmetto State. However, one Louisiana turtle farmer
claimed to take 30,000 turtles from South Carolina in 2003.”
“We’re the last state where it’s open warfare on turtles,”
Riverbanks Zoo curator of herpetology Scott Pfaff told Holleman.
“It’s the only animal exploited for food that requires no permit, so
the species is being exterminated and South Carolina gets nothing.”
The South Carolina legislature in 2008 considered bills to
curtail hunting eight turtle species and to stop all turtle hunting,
but neither bill became law. As the May 2009 edition of ANIMAL
PEOPLE went to press, both houses of the South Carolina legislature
had passed a bill in yet-to-be-reconciled amended forms, which would
provide that “It is unlawful for a person, or a group of individuals
traveling in one vehicle, to remove, or attempt to remove from this
State more than ten, either in one species or a combination of
species,” nine named turtle species. This would be in combination
with an annual export limit of 20 turtles.
A loophole is that the bill, H 3121, allows the continued
sale of yellowbelly and snapping turtles “if these turtles were taken
from a permitted aquaculture facility or a private pond pursuant to a
permit issued by the department at the request of the owner or
owner’s agent.”
Georgia legislators Joe Wilkinson, Bob Lane, Calvin Hill,
and Ed Lindsey on March 3, 2009 introduced a bill, HB 603, which
would halt turtle hunting, but six weeks later the bill had yet to
“Georgia law currently allows an unlimited number of
freshwater turtles to be harvested from the wild and sold as food,”
summarized the Center for Biological Diversity, Satilla Riverkeeper,
Altamaha Riverkeeper, and the Center For Food Safety in a 2008
petition to the legislature. “Under this regime, every
non-protected freshwater turtle in Georgia can be legally collected
and sold. Unregulated harvest and commercial collection are rapidly
depleting Georgia’s wild turtle populations.”
The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity has joined
local organizations in eight Midwestern and Southern states in
seeking to stop or at least significantly slow the hunting toll on
“People in states where there’s either no regulation or lax
regulations are literally strip mining streams,” explained Center
for Biological Diversity spokesperson Jeff Miller. “We’re going to
see some catastrophic results. It’s way beyond anything that’s
Editorially agreed the New York Times on January 26, 2009,
“States should impose much tighter restrictions on the harvesting and
export of wild turtles. Internationally, the problem is more
complicated. There have been efforts to monitor the species of wild
turtles found in Chinese markets, but as long as the appetite for
turtles–and traditional medicines derived from them–persists, we
fear it will be hard to curtail such a profitable and disastrous
“The situation of turtle conservation in China is improving,”
Hainan Normal University chelonian researcher Shi Haitao in July 2007
told 200 delegates to a joint meeting of the Turtle Survival Alliance
and the World Conservation Union’s tortoise and freshwater turtle
specialist group at Zoo Atlanta. According to Shi Haitao, the
volume of turtles sold at the Qingping market in Guangzhou had fallen
80% in 10 years.
But there may be two reasons for that beyond increased
concern for turtles.
One is that Wal-Mart, headquartered in Bentonville,
Arkansas, has opened superstores in the region that sell live
turtles and frogs. So have competitor chains, including Carrefour
of France, Metro of Germany, and Tesco of Britain.
Wal-Mart chief executive officer Lee Scott declared in
October 2005 that Wal-Mart has a duty to be a “good steward for the
environment.” But Wal-Mart has yet to respond to the question ANIMAL
PEOPLE asked of Scott and the company multiple times in 2007, “How
does Wal-Mart reconcile selling turtles (and frogs) for human
consumption in your stores in China with your policy of
The other reason for falling turtle sales at the Qingping
market may be that the world is running out of turtles.

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