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Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, 2000, 1:2-3
© 2000 by Chelonian Research Foundation

Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter

Publisher's Editorial: Turtle Survival Crisis

Anders G.J. Rhodin
Chelonian Research Foundation
168 Goodrich Street, Lunenburg, Massachusetts 01462 USA

Turtles are in terrible trouble. Throughout the world they are threatened by a plethora of problems to which they are succumbing. Their habitats are being increasingly fragmented, destroyed, developed, and polluted. They are being collected, butchered, eaten, traded, sold, and exploited in overwhelming numbers. They are used for food, pets, traditional medicine - eggs, juveniles, adults, body parts, all are utilized indiscriminately, with no regard for sustainability. Populations nearly everywhere are shrinking. Species everywhere are threatened and vulnerable, many are critically endangered, others teeter on the very edge of extinction, some have already been lost forever.

Survivors of countless millennia, turtles on the brink of our new millennium face imminent demise at the hands of humans. We are facing a turtle survival crisis unprecedented in its severity and risk. Without intervention, countless species will be lost over the next few decades. We must work together now to save these creatures that we care for so passionately. We must work for the survival of turtles throughout the world, help each other understand the risks and threats turtles face, define the survival and conservation objectives to which we must aspire, and develop the successful strategies and alliances that can help us reach those goals.

Our legacy must be that we succeeded in preserving the diversity of turtles with whose care we have been entrusted. That innate responsibility has come from the privilege we enjoy in sharing this world and its habitats with other creatures who have evolved, as we have, to grace this planet with a most extraordinary diversity. We must not lose any of that diversity, but instead celebrate and preserve it, and defend the inherent right to continued existence for all species of turtles.

Of all the threats that turtles face, the most serious and critical is the uncontrolled and overwhelming trade for food and traditional medicine in southeast Asia. Imports of turtles to southern China from the southeast Asian region are measured in tons of live turtles per day, with more than 10 million individuals traded per year. All species of turtles in southeast Asia are traded, with indiscriminate exploitation of all accessible populations. This has resulted in severely depleted and extirpated populations near the consumer source in China, and ever-widening ripples of non-sustainable harvest reaching into all surrounding southeast Asian regions and even beginning to impact turtles in North America and elsewhere.

To address this problem, a regional workshop was held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 14 December 1999, attended by about 40 delegates from 13 southeast Asian nations (China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Australia) to discuss the trade and conservation of turtles in the region. Organized by Wildlife Conservation Society, World Wildlife Fund, and TRAFFIC, and supported by many organizations, including Chelonian Research Foundation, the workshop documented patterns of exploitation and trade of turtles in the southeast Asian and Oriental regions and made specific recommendations regarding that trade. Foremost among those recommendations was that since nearly all Asian turtles are threatened by trade they all should be considered for listing at least on CITES Appendix II (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), so that monitoring of that trade will become more easily enforceable. In fact, a lack of enforcement of current trade regulations was among the most serious threats identified by the workshop delegates as facing turtles in the trade today. There appears to be very little actual monitoring of the trade, and not enough regard paid to whether the turtles traded are listed by CITES or not. This appears to be true not only in China, but also in source countries and trans-shipment sites, and is related to a variety of factors, including limited resources and difficulties in species identification.

Therefore, more than just listing all Asian turtles by CITES, perhaps we need to begin thinking about possibly listing all chelonians on at least CITES Appendix II, as are many other whole groups of traded animals (e.g., all crocodiles, marine mammals, primates, cats, birds of prey, parrots, orchids, hard corals, etc.). All marine turtles and all tortoises are already listed by CITES; it may be time to list all freshwater turtles as well, thereby providing at least some degree of monitoring for all chelonians in international trade. Only with data on volumes and species in trade will we ever be able to determine what may constitute sustainable levels of utilization for turtles. A careful evaluation of the possible advantages and disadvantages of listing all chelonians on CITES Appendices needs to be considered. Issues regarding conservation breeding programs and commercial turtle farming need be considered in conjunction with such an evaluation. The goal should not be to hinder all trade in turtles, but to monitor that trade for sustainability and to take necessary conservation action when wild native species are seriously threatened.

We also need to increase communication and collaboration between the various stakeholders interested in turtle conservation and biology. To help address that need, Chelonian Research Foundation is now pleased to present this publication, Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, the Newsletter of Chelonian Conservationists and Biologists (TTN). We hope that TTN can help provide timely information, developments, and viewpoints of interest to the chelonian conservation community. Edited by Heather Kalb and Allen Salzberg and backed by a consulting board of leading chelonian conservationists and their parent organizations, TTN represents an outlet for current turtle conservation and biology news and issues.

We welcome the support and participation of all interested parties and all viewpoints will be considered. Of particular interest are news items and preliminary research or field reports dealing with conservation biology, population status and trends, human exploitation or conservation management issues, community conservation initiatives and projects, legal and trade issues, conservation and development threats, geographic distribution, natural history, ecology, reproduction, natural variation, captive propagation, and husbandry. Newsnotes, announcements, commentaries, and reviews of interest to the turtle conservation and research community are also welcome.

TTN incorporates and merges two previous publications: Box Turtle Research and Conservation Newsletter, which appeared between 1994 and 1999 (edited by Heather Kalb), and Newsletter of the IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, which appeared under various titles between 1981 and 1990 (edited primarily by Peter Pritchard). Distribution of TTN will be free of charge to those requesting it and will also be available as a free downloadable document on Chelonian Research Foundation's WebSite (www.chelonian.org). Automatically receiving TTN will be subscribers to Chelonian Conservation and Biology and Box Turtle Research and Conservation Newsletter, as well as members of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group and the AZA Chelonian Advisory Group. Scientific peer-reviewed contributions relating to turtle conservation and biology will continue to be accepted and published by our professional scientific journal, Chelonian Conservation and Biology. TTN in no way replaces that publication. Though TTN is distributed free of charge, donations for financial support are gratefully accepted and actively solicited. We will need to rely on the generosity of our supporters, both institutional and individual, to continue to provide this service free of charge. With broad-based support and participation from our readers and contributors we hope that TTN will become a forum for the exchange of time-sensitive information and news on turtle conservation. Perhaps if we all work together we can help overcome the terrible trouble turtles are in and achieve a secure and permanent future for turtles everywhere.