Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, 2000, 1:7-11
© 2000 by Chelonian Research Foundation

Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter

Asian Turtles are Threatened by Extinction

Sandra Altherr and Daniela Freyer
Pro Wildlife, Löfflerstr. 5a, 80999 Munich, Germany

1. Introduction

The trade to and in Southern Asian - especially Chinese - food markets has become the main threat to the survival of Southeast Asian turtles. While tortoises and freshwater turtles have been subjected to human predation for centuries, recent changes in Asian economics, spawned when Chinese currency became convertible, have opened direct access to foreign markets (Behler, 1997).

According to Dr. John Thorbjarnarson, co-ordinator of international reptile conservation programs at Wildlife Conservation Society (cited in Kaesuk Yoon 1999), the uncontrolled trade into China is the No. 1 threat to Asian turtles.

Tortoises and freshwater turtles are favored for their supposed medicinal value and consumed as food. China’s native turtle species already have been depleted dramatically. Therefore the species present in Chinese markets are increasingly collected in countries further and further away. Besides Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Nepal even species from New Guinea and the USA are now affected. Only a small portion of the turtles being observed in the markets in 1997 were native to China. This indicates a dramatic decline of the Chinese populations of all affected species. Lau et al. (1995) described the situation in China. In the late 1970s the hard-shelled chelonian trade was dominated by Chinese species. Now there are more Southeast Asian species for sale than Chinese ones. The import of food chelonians from outside countries has increased more than tenfold since 1977. This reflects an increase in demand in Southern China and the depletion of Chinese chelonians in the wild.

The situation of Asian chelonians is additiononally sharpened by habitat destruction,scale deforestation (Collins 1990; van Dijk 1997; Studley 1998), chemical pollution and fragmentation of large rivers by dams (Fu, 1997). A summary of the situation of turtle species native to China is given in Table 1.

2. Population Trends of Key Species

All Southern and Southeast Asian species of turtles have been rapidly declining in the past decade, many face extinction in the wild. The following data are serious indications for the dramatic situation:

Some of the Chinese species, such as Cuora mccordi, are only known from the markets - there is no information about their population status, reproductivity, etc. C. mccordi, as well as C. zhoui, have not been available in the markets for a couple of years (Barzyk, 1999), although huge amounts of money have been offered by Western herpetologists. It has to be feared that these species are already extinct.

Of all chelonians C. trifasciata is the most demanded species which results in a tenfold price in comparison with other species (Jenkins, 1995; van Dijk, 1995, cited by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 1999). Meanwhile, the price for one specimen has increased to $1,000 U.S. (McCord, cited by Behler, 1997).

Softshell turtles (p.10) have a central role in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and are generally regarded as the most palatable non-marine chelonians within Southeast Asia (Jenkins, 1995). The populations of almost all softshell turtles are declining rapidly (for example, as described by Jenkins, 1995; Thirakhupt & van Dijk, 1995; Shrestha, 1997).

Meanwhile, even one of the formerly most abundant species, Amyda cartilaginea, has become rare (Jenkins, 1995). In Malaysia, where it had been the most abundant species on the markets, the numbers on sale decreased obviously since 1976. This decline was also reported from Vietnamese markets (Lehr, 1997).

Behler (1997) warns that Chitra indica and Pelochelys bibroni might become extinct in the wild without heroic intervention.

The Indian populations of Kachuga sylhetensis (p. 10) suffered a 90% decrease in the last decade. K. kachuga is showing a similar decline: During the last 20 years there was a reduction of more than 80% (BCPP, 1997). According to Das (1997) both species are reported as belonging to the ten most-threatened chelonians of the Oriental region.

All other species of the genus Kachuga are also decreasing - not only in India but also in Nepal and Bangladesh (Ernst et al., 1997; Sarker & Hossain, 1997).

3. Volume of Trade

Although not documenting the extent of trade in all details, the following data are definite indications of the tremendous threats to Asian turtles:

Bill McCord reported that in two Chinese food markets alone an estimated 10,000 turtles are offered during a two-day period. He calculated that, “If China only had five or six markets, this would add up to at least 50,000 turtles on any given day. If the total replacement time was conservatively figured to be a full week (2-3 days given orally), then five or six markets would process at least 2.6 million turtles a year!”

Salzberg (1998) estimates the number of markets to be a lot higher and therefore calculates that more than 12 million turtles are sold each year in China alone. Almost all animals are wild-caught. Facing the low reproduction rate of most species there is no doubt that this exploitation is not sustainable and that within a few years many of the affected species will be extinct from the wild. The situation continues to worsen with the increasing demand from growing human populations and affluence especially in China.

Lau et al. (1998) described a dramatic trend in the import of food chelonians imported in the past few years: “In 1977, 139,200 kg of food chelonians was imported to Hong Kong. In 1991, 110,574 kg of food chelonians was imported and rose to 680,582 kg in 1993. In the first ten months of 1994, a record high of 1,800,024 kg of animals was imported.”

Only about 10% of the turtles at Vietnamese markets are consumed by the domestic demand. The remaining 90% are to be exported to China and Hong Kong (Lehr, 1997). China’s large-scale border trade with Vietnam began in 1989 and has developed rapidly since. Most of the exported animals are alive, but there are also exports of pharmaceutical products.

During an investigation by Yiming and Dianmo (1998) about 2.29 to 29.32 tons of wildlife/day were exported to China from Vietnam. More than 61% of this volume are tortoises, this results in 1.84 to 18.4 tons of turtles each day.

According to Martin & Phipps (1996) most turtles exported from Cambodia are destined for Vietnam, at least at first. Turtles have by far the largest turnover by weight among wildlife on sale in Neak Lung: In West Neak Lung approx. 9.5 tons were sold in 1993, while in East Neak Lung about 3.6 tons were sold in 1994.

This trade is unselective; species protected by international or domestic legislation are concerned as well as unprotected ones. The species presently affected represent about 25 % of the world’s turtle species. The turtles which are exported to the Chinese food markets are often declared as “seafood.” This is one reason why there is a lack of statistics documenting the volume of the trade in separate species. The mortality rate of the turtles before arriving at the destination is often very high as a consequence of the suboptimal conditions during transport.

If this unsustainable trade continues, many Southeast Asian turtle species will be extinct within a few years. It is now vital to focus international attention on this issue and co-ordinate steps to reduce the trade in turtles to a sustainable level.

4. Conservation Strategy for Asia’s Turtles

The dramatic decline of Asian turtles can only be stopped in close co-operation with the range states. The following issues need to be considered on an international political level:
• to realize and discuss the fatal extent of the trade in Southeast Asian turtles within the up-coming CITES conference in April 2000.
• to work with and assist range states and local conservationists to win protection for turtles and prevent their extinction in the wild, e.g., i) to support coming-up proposals for a listing of Asian turtles in CITES App. I (e.g. exclusion from international commercial trade) or App. II (e.g. reduction and control of the international commercial trade) and ii) conducting field studies and assist in establishing in situ conservation projects in range states;
• to appeal to export countries to enforce national and international laws as well as IATA regulations (detailed declaration, conditions during transport);
• to encourage and support range states to run education programs to reduce the demand in medical products made from endangered species;
• to bring up the discussion of China’s infractions against CITES: Western herpetologists report that App. I - species of turtles are offered in Chinese food markets that are non-native to China (Aspideretes gangeticus, A. hurum, Batagur baska, Geoclemys hamiltonii, Kachuga tecta, and Morenia ocellata). There are also several App. II species offered at the markets in high numbers (Callagur borneoensis, Geochelone elongata, Geochelone platynota, Manouria emys, and Lissemys punctata).

Table 1. Population trends of Chinese freshwater turtles and tortoises (Table based on Chinese Red Data Book of Endangered Animals, 1998). (Traditional Chinese Medicine, TCM)

Species Category / Status / Trends Main Threats
Platysternon megacephalum Endangered, very rare Over-exploitation
Chinemys megalocephala* Endangered, rare Food markets
Chinemys nigricans* Endangered, rare Food markets
Chinemys reevesi Conservation dependent, sharply declining numbers TCM, food markets
Cuora aurocapitata* Critically endangered, rare TCM
Cuora flavomarginata Endangered, few animals TCM, food markets
Cuora galbinifrons Endangered, declining populations Over-exploitation
Cuora mccordi* Data deficient (only known from food markets) food markets
Cuora pani* Critically endangered (CITES App.II),

in total 22 specimens are known

food markets
Cuora trifasciata Critically endangered, very rare TCM
Cuora yunnanensis* probably extinct in the wild No data
Cuora zhoui* Data deficient, sharply declining numbers food markets
Cyclemys dentata Endangered, rare food and pet trade
Geoemyda spengleri Endangered, rare food markets
Mauremys iversoni* data deficient, very rare (in total 29 specimens have been seen) food markets
Mauremys mutica Endangered food markets
Ocadia glyphistoma* Data deficient (in total only 10 specimens known) No data
Ocadia philippeni* Data deficient (in total only 9 specimens known) No data
Ocadia sinensis Endangered, decreasing populations TCM
Pyxidea mouhotii Endangered food markets, habitat loss
Sacalia bealei Endangered over-exploitation, habitat loss
Sacalia pseudocellata* data deficient (in total 3 specimens are known) No data
Sacalia quadriocellata Endangered, rare over-exploitation
Indotestudo elongata Endangered, rare over-exploitation, habitat loss
Manouria impressa Endangered food markets, handcrafts
Testudo horsfieldii Critically endangered over-exploitation, habitat loss
Palea steindachneri endangered, very rare food markets, export
Pelochelys bibroni (nomenclature unclear) extinct in the wild food markets
Pelochelys maculatus not evaluated (only 3 specimens are known) food markets (illegal imports from other countries)
Pelodiscus sinensis Vulnerable TCM and food markets
* Endemic to China

Asian box turtles (Cuora spp.). Asian box turtles have a very low reproduction rate which makes this genus highly sensitive for over-exploitation. Some of these species are only known from food markets with no data concerning their habitat or population size. (Red Data Book, RDB)

Species Countries of Origin Biological Data Extent of Trade Population Trends
Cuora amboinensis (1802)
Malaysian box turtle
Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos, Myanmar, Bangladesh, China, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, Eastern India, Cambodia, Singapour 1 to 5 eggs/nest, several nests per year; incubation period about 76 days High level of exploitation for national and international trade (food, TCM, souvenirs) Declining populations (Lehr, 1997; Thirakhupt & van Dijk, 1997)
Red data book of Vietnam (1992): "vulnerable"
IUCN (1996): "near threatened"
Cuora aurocapitata (1988) Golden-headed box turtle China (Anhui), found in Namling County, Yixian, Guande, Jingxian Low reproduction rate in captivity (3 to 6 eggs, once a year) One of the most requested and most expensive species in the Chinese food markets (up to 900 US $ / animal) Populations rapidly decreasing (Meier, 1998)
Red data book of China (1998): "critically endangered"
IUCN (1996): "data deficient"
Cuora flavomargi-nata (1863) Chinese box turtle China (Anhui, Fujian, Henan, Jiangsu, Hunan, Szechnan, Shanghai, Taiwan), Japanese Riu Kiu Islands Low reproduction rate in captivity (1 to 4 eggs/nest, once a year) High level of exploitation in China and Hong Kong, offered in decreasing numbers Populations obviously declining Red data book of China (1998): "endangered" IUCN: "vulnerable"
Cuora galbinifrons (1939) Flowerback box turtle Vietnam, China (Guangxi and Hainan), Southeast Laos Low reproduction rate in captivity (2 eggs/nest, once a year) High level of exploitation for national and international trade; Offered in decreasing numbers Declining populations (Lehr, 1996) Red data book of Vietnam (1992): "vulnerable" Red data book of China (1998): "endangered" IUCN (1996): "near threatened"
Cuora mccordi (1988) Mc Cord¥s box turtle Only discovered on Chinese markets (Guangxi), no data on natural habitat no data Offered in Chinese markets (up to now only about 100 animals have been observed) Rapidly declining populations (Behler, 1997; Meier, 1998); Red Data Book of China (1998) and IUCN (1996): "data deficient"
Cuora trifasciata (1825) Three-striped box turtle China (Guangxi, Fujian, Guangdong, Hainan), Northern Vietnam, maybe also in Laos and Cambodia Low reproduction rate (2 to 6 eggs/nest), once a year Most expensive and requested turtle in the Chinese markets (up to 3,000 US $/ animals) Rapidly declining populations; (Pritchard, 1997) Red data book of China (1998): "critically endangered" Red data book of Vietnam (1992): "vulnerable" IUCN (1996): "endangered"
Cuora yunnanensis (1906) Yunnan box turtle Only known from a few specimen in museums No data No hints for trade, maybe already extinct Red data book of China (1998): "maybe already extinct" IUCN (1996): "data deficient"
Cuora zhoui (1990) Zhou¥s box turtle Only discovered on markets in China (Yunnan, Guangxi) Low reproduction rate in captivity (up to 5 eggs/nest, once a year) One of the most requested and expensive species in the Chinese markets (up to 800 US $) Rapidly declining populations (Behler, 1997; Meier, 1998); Red Data Book of China (1998) and IUCN (1996): "data deficient"

Roofed turtles (Kachuga spp.). As a consequence of the breakdown of the Chinese turtle populations, roofed turtles are imported from countries as far away as Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan.

Species Countries of Origin Biological Data Extent of Trade Population Trends
Kachuga dhongoka (1835) Three-striped roofed turtle Northern India (Ganges), Nepal Bangladesh (Brahmaputra) 21 to 34 eggs/nest, once a year; small populations Meanwhile offered in Chinese food markets (imported by planes); National trade in Nepal Declining populations (Choudhury & Bhutpathy, 1993) in India: "vulnerable" (BCPP, 1997) in Bangladesh: "few" specimen (Sarker & Hossain, 1997) IUCN (1996): "near threatened"
Kachuga kachuga (1831) Red-crowned roofed turtle Northern India (Ganges), Bangladesh (Brahmaputra), Nepal 20 to 25 eggs/nest, once a year; incubation period: 80 to 86 days; small populations Meanwhile offered in Chinese food markets (imported by planes); National trade in Nepal Population decline in India more than 80 % in 20 years (BCPP, 1997), in India: "vulnerable" In Nepal: "rare" (Shrestha, 1997) IUCN (1996): "endangered"
Kachuga smithii (1863) Brown roofed turtle Northern India (Ganges), Bangladesh (Brahmaputra), Pakistan (Indus) Low reproduction rate in captivity (3 to 11 eggs/ nest, once a year) Meanwhile offered in Chinese food markets (imported by planes) Decreasing populations in Nepal (Ernst et al., 1997) In India: "lower risk ñ least concern", globally: "data deficient" (BCPP, 1997), in Bangladesh: "few" specimen (Sarker & Hossain, 1997)
Kachuga sylhetensis (1870) Assam roofed turtle India (Northern Bengal, Himalaya, Punjab, Assam) No data No data Population decline in India more than 90 % in 10 years (BCPP, 1997), in India: "critically endangered", in Bangladesh "occasional" IUCN (1996): "data deficient"
Kachuga tentoria (1834) Indian tent turtle India (Mahanadi, Godavari, Kistna, Ganges, Chambal), Bangladesh (Jamuna), Nepal Low reproduction rate (3 to 12 eggs/nest, once a year) Meanwhile offered in Chinese food markets (imported by planes) Population decline in India more than 20 % in 10 years (BCPP, 1997), in India: "vulnerable" IUCN (1996): "vulnerable"
Kachuga trivittata (1835) Burmese roofed turtle Myanmar (Salween-Irawaddy river system) About 25 eggs/nest, once a year National trade in Myanmar Dramatically decreased populations (van Dijk, 1997) IUCN (1996): "endangered"

Indo-Pacific Softshell Turtles: Formerly, most species of this group were defined as Trionyx spp. (Red Data Book, RDB; Traditional Chinese Medicine, TCM)

Species Countries of Origin Biological Data Extent of Trade Population Trends
Amydsa cartilaginea (1770)
Asiatic softshell turtle
Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapour, Indonesia, Brunei 6 to 30 eggs per nest;
up to 4 times a year;
hatching after 135 to 140 days
High level of exploitation for national and international trade Declining populations in all countries of origin (Jenkins, 1995; Thirakhupt & van Dijk, 1997; Lehr, 1997; van Dijk, 1997); IUCN (1996): "vulnerable"
Aspiderete leithii (1972)
Leithís softshell turtle
India, Pakistan Nest size unknown, probably 2 nests per year Exploitation for national markets No data on international trade IUCN (1996): "near thretened"
Chitra chitra (1990)
Kanburi narrow-headed softshell turtle
Thailand (point-endemic for the Mae Klong Basin) no data on breeding and population size National trade as pets; No data on international trade There is only one population of about 16 animals (Das, 1997). This is one of the world¥s most threatened turtles; IUCN: "critically endangered"
Chitra indica (1831)
Narrow-headed softshell turtle
Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand 67 to 187 eggs/nest; incubation period: 40 to 70 days; no data on the population size High level of exploitation for national and international trade; Offered in decreasing numbers Populations declining (Rashid & Swingland, 1997; Shrestha, 1997); IUCN (1996): "vulnerable"
Dogania subplana (1809)
Malayan softshell turtle
Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Singapour, Thailand, Brunei no data High level of exploitation for national and international trade Declining populations in Thailand (Thirakhupt & van Dijk, 1997);
Nilssonia formosa (1869)
Burmese peacock softshell turtle
Myanmar (Irawaddy-Salween), eventually also in Thailand and China no data Used for TCM in Myanmar; No data on international trade Obviously declining populations (van Dijk, 1997); IUCN (1996): "vulnerable"
Palea steindachneri (1906)
Wattle-necked softshell turtle
Southern China (also at Hainan), Vietnam; Introduced into Hawaii and Mauritius 3 to 28 eggs/nest, once a year no data on population size Offered in decreasing numbers in national trade, illegal exports to Chinese food markets Obviously declining populations (Yiming & Dianmo, 1998), almost disappeared from the markets (Lehr, 1996); "very rare" in China (Nat. Environm. Protect. Agency of China, 1998); IUCN (1996): "near threatened"
Pelochelys bibroni (1993)
Giant sofsthell turtle
Papua New Guinea 17 to 28 eggs/nest, no data on population size Offered in decreasing numbers in Vietnam¥s and Chinaís markets Obviously declining populations (Rhodin et al., 1993; Behler, 1997); rare; IUCN (1996): "vulnerable"
Pelochelys cantorii (1864)
Asian giant softshell turtle
India, Malaysia, Laos, S-China, Philippines, Indonesia, Myan-mar, New Guinea, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapour 20 to 28 eggs/nest no data on population size Offered in decreasing numbers at the Vietnamese and Chinese markets Obviously declining populations (Jenkins, 1995; Thirakhupt & van Dijk, 1997); IUCN (1996): "vulnerable" Red data book Vietnam (1992): "vulnerable"
Pelodiscus sinensis (1835)
Chinese softshell turtle
N-Vietnam, S-China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Singapour, Philippines 7 to 28 eggs, 2 to 4 times a year, no data on population size Extensive trade within China, mainly for TCM Obviously declining populations (Jenkins, 1995; Lehr, 1996; Yiming & Dianmo, 1998)