At the close of 1999, the global turtle crisis remained just as serious, if not more so, than in the year that preceded it. Asia remains the very worst situation for chelonians. Kurt Buhlmann, Conservation International’s Coordinator for Amphibian and Chelonian Conservation (and serving double-duty as the TFTSG Program officer) traveled to Cambodia in early December to attend the International Workshop on Trade in Freshwater and Terrestrial Turtles and Tortoises in Asia. He has capsulated the results of the entire meeting into a single sentence: “The entire assemblage of freshwater turtles and tortoises native to southern Asia are in grave danger of extinction.” Delegates - turtle trade specialists from Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, and Vietnam - discussed the trade and its impacts to their regions. Their consensus: the greatest threat to their turtle stocks (> 80 species) is unbridled exploitation for Chinese food markets. These markets are not well policed and the work of smugglers is obvious, as CITES Appendix I and II species from elsewhere in Asia are openly offered in them. The volume of trade into China is staggering and clearly unsustainable. It is measured in tens of tons per day and millions of turtles per year. Workshop attendees endorsed the recommendation to list all unlisted Asian turtles on Appendix II. At the midyear CITES Animal Committee meeting, China was queried about the unregulated trade. In response, China invited its neighbors to identify problem species. This veiled offer simply sidestepped honoring existing wildlife laws of their neighbors, policing markets and curtailing obvious smuggling activities, and dealing with their responsibilities as a CITES signatory. It was a very simple but effective delaying tactic. They continue. China failed to send a government representative to the Cambodian workshop in December.
While China is the biggest black hole for turtles, Madagascar and North American species are under assault as never before. Through my visits to the spiny desert and dry deciduous forests of Madagascar over the past decade, I’ve witnessed the degradation of large tracts of tortoise habitat. I’ve also seen local customs that served to protect tortoises subverted by overpopulation, tribal displacement, and expatriate activity. Now scores of radiated tortoises and spider tortoises (App. I & II) flow to Japan for its exotic pet market. Areas that held unbelievably dense populations of tortoises ten years ago have been swept clean by collectors for food markets and export. The Madagascar flat-tailed tortoise, certainly one of the world’s rarest forms, can be found for sale (with legal permits!?) on the World Wide Web. You’ll find them there with spider tortoises, and not far from rare laundered “captive-bred” Graptemys and Clemmys.
There is no vertebrate group facing greater survival problems today. Turtles saw the great dinosaurs come and go and are now facing their own extinction crisis. I appeal to you, taxon specialists, endangered species biologists, ecologists, zoo professionals, captive-breeders, veterinarians, hobbyists, and law makers and enforcers - the world’s chelonian authorities - to come together in common cause and voice to address the challenge. TTN can serve as our call-to-arms. Please help however you can.