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

Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter

Publisher’s Editorial:
Making Progress in Freshwater Turtle and Tortoise Conservation

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

It has been a year since we launched this newsletter (Rhodin, 2000a), a year during which there has been a continual upwelling of concern and increasing interest in the conservation plight of turtles, especially freshwater turtles and tortoises. Progress has been made on many fronts and there are small beginnings of optimism for change despite overwhelming continuing concern about future survival prospects. Two prominent issues that I’d like to address at this time are (1) significant and progressive developments concerning freshwater turtles in regards to CITES, and (2) the need for further synergy in the field of chelonian conservation and biology.

As many have reported (Lovich et al., 2000; Rhodin, 2000a; van Dijk et al., 2000), Asian freshwater turtles and tortoises are facing an unprecedented survival risk due to greatly expanded levels of trade in wild-collected animals from all over south and southeast Asia destined for markets in east Asia, primarily China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Though local consumption of turtles may have increased somewhat in some source regions, and many turtles enter the western international pet trade, the overwhelming majority of animals, on the order of 13,000 tons of live turtles per year, are exported to east Asian consumer centers for consumption as food and as ingredients for Traditional Chinese Medicine (van Dijk et al., 2000).

To begin to understand the levels of trade involved, a Workshop on Asian Turtle Trade was held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in December 1999, and the proceedings of that workshop published in August 2000 (van Dijk et al., 2000). One of the main recommendations coming out of that workshop was that all Asian species of freshwater turtles should be considered for listing on at least Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora).

The reasons for considering such a generalized CITES listing are multiple and include the following salient points: (1) nearly 100% of Asian freshwater turtles and tortoises are affected by trade, (2) over 60% of those species are at least partially threatened by that trade, (3) about 75% of 80 native Asian freshwater turtles are listed as threatened by IUCN criteria, (4) over 50% of Asian freshwater turtles are listed as endangered by IUCN criteria, (5) only 24% (19 species) of Asian freshwater turtles are currently listed by CITES (with nearly half of those in the single genus Cuora, listed just this year at CITES CoP 11), (6) 100% of Asian tortoises and marine turtles are already listed by CITES, and (7) most official wildlife examiners and import/export enforcement personnel lack the necessary resources and skills to accurately identify turtle species in trade, leading to look-alike identification problems. If we are to bring Asian freshwater turtles to the levels of trade documentation and protection already afforded to tortoises and marine turtles, then we need to consider listing them all on at least CITES Appendix II.

Whether all (or most) Asian freshwater turtles can or should be listed on at least CITES II is certainly an open question which will require a lot of input and discussion from multiple viewpoints with evaluations on a species-by-species basis. To that end, it is extremely noteworthy and welcome that an initiative to review the trade in Asian turtles has now been launched within the official framework of CITES, and it is my pleasure to report on that progress here.

At CITES CoP 11 in April 2000, Resolution Conf. 11.9 called for efforts at multiple levels to urgently address the threats posed by the trade in freshwater turtles and tortoises. As part of that process, the CITES Secretariat was charged with convening a technical workshop in order to establish conservation priorities and actions, including considering the recommendations of the Asian Turtle Trade workshop held in Cambodia. In addition, the CITES Animals Committee was charged with investigating the trade in freshwater turtles and tortoises. To that end, at the 16th Meeting of the CITES Animals Committee in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, on 11–15 December 2000, the issue was specifically and officially addressed through the formation of a CITES Animals Committee Working Group on Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises.

The Working Group was constituted by the Animals Committee Chair, Marinus S. Hoogmoed, with the following membership: (1) Chair: Animals Committee Representative for Asia (Tonny Soehartono, Indonesia); (2) Animals Committee Representative for Africa (Kim Howell, Tanzania); (3) China (Zhou Zhihua and Phoebe Sze); (4) Germany (Harald Martens); (5) Indonesia (Samedi); (6) Tanzania (Juma A. Kayera); (7) USA (Bruce Weissgold); (8) Chelonian Research Foundation (Anders G.J. Rhodin, USA); (9) Conservation International (Kurt A. Buhlmann, USA); (10) International Wildlife Coalition (Ronald Orenstein, Canada); (11) Pro Wildlife (Daniela Freyer, Germany); (12) TRAFFIC (Craig Hoover, USA, and Peter Paul van Dijk, Malaysia); (13) Wildlife Conservation Society (John L. Behler, USA). The Working Group was designated as an intersessional standing committee to work until at least CITES CoP 12 in 2002 and mandated to investigate not only Asian turtle trade issues, but also global freshwater turtle and tortoise trade.

The Working Group identified three priority actions to be carried out within the framework of CITES: (1) assist the CITES Secretariat to convene a technical workshop on trade in freshwater turtles and tortoises in Asia, and to include more representation from the consumer side of the turtle trade as opposed to the Cambodia workshop which focused more on the supply side; (2) perform a review of currently unlisted Asian turtle species to determine if any of them would benefit from a future listing on the CITES Appendices; and (3) add the following turtle species to the CITES Review of Significant Trade process (for species already listed on Appendix II): Cuora amboinensis, C. flavomarginata, C. galbinifrons, Lissemys punctata, and the Madagascar tortoise, Pyxis planicauda.

All of these actions and developments are of the utmost importance, but none more so than the official and formal recognition by CITES that Asian freshwater turtles in particular, and turtles in general, are facing increasingly severe threats that need to be dealt with effectively if we are to harbor any hope that they will persist in the wild. The formation of this Working Group goes a long way towards helping identify how CITES can best participate in that process. The ultimate goal here is not immediate and total protection against all forms of utilization — the cultures of the world have long utilized turtles and will probably continue to do so for a long time — the goal needs to be to deflect unsustainable trade pressures away from wild populations of turtles and redirect them towards possibly sustainable alternatives, while hopefully slowly changing cultural preferences for turtles. The answers may lie in severely regulated, if not prohibited, trade in all wild turtles and turtle parts, but with encouragement and further development of largescale farming efforts and captive breeding facilities to meet the demands of the current marketplace, be it the consumptive food trade, the medicinal markets, or the pet trade.
Based on my personal involvement and experience so far in the CITES Working Group — where enthusiasm, insight, knowledge, and the desire to work together were shared by all the participants — I believe it has the potential to assist in effecting lasting change and a brightening outlook for the turtles of both Asia and the world.

It will take vision and insight from diverse participants at the global conservation table to help formulate a successful strategy that can turn the tide of the Asian turtle survival crisis and chelonian conservation priorities elsewhere. In addition to the CITES Working Group there are multiple other individuals and groups around the world who are working towards improved turtle conservation, and all need to communicate with each other in order to achieve viable and successful goals. This raises the second point that I wish to address.

Later in this newsletter FitzSimmons (2001) editorializes about the series of Powdermill Conferences on Freshwater Turtles and issues a welcome and valid challenge regarding the level of participation at those meetings. Please read that contribution. As recorded by Rhodin (2000b) in describing Powdermill IV, participation at the Powdermill Conferences has always been by invitation only, to keep them small and intimate, though participation has gradually expanded to about 60 over the four meetings held to date. Initially focusing on only ecology of freshwater turtles, the meetings have also gradually expanded to include tortoises and conservation. At Powdermill IV an open debate was held regarding whether or not to open future meetings to participation by request instead of by invitation. My personal view, which I presented at that time, and now repeat with even more conviction, is that the Powdermill Conferences stand at a threshold, capable of becoming the leading forum for the public exchange of information among people and organizations concerned with the biology and conservation of freshwater turtles and tortoises. However, in order to make the leap from a small specialized exclusive meeting to a powerful force in the world of chelonian conservation and biology, the conference must be allowed to evolve into an open public forum inclusive of all who wish to contribute. It can then achieve the outstanding level of success enjoyed by our counterpart in the world of marine turtles, the Sea Turtle Symposium, which has held 20 annual meetings since 1981, starting with just over 60 participants in the first year and gradually expanding to over 1000 last year. The interactions and synergy created by so many sea turtle researchers and conservationists coming together to discuss their data and their concerns, successes, and failures has created an ever-expanding global network of increasing participation at all levels of sea turtle biology and conservation. The field has been stimulated to grow partly through the shared excitement and friendships generated by these all-inclusive meetings. It is time that the world of freshwater turtle and tortoise biologists and conservationists create the same vehicle for communication, unity, and a sharing of our common goals and interests. I echo FitzSimmons’ challenge and suggest that the Powdermill Conferences stand ready to begin to rise to that challenge.

Literature Cited
FitzSimmons, N.N. 2001. Beyond Powdermill: new grist for the mill. Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter 3: 23.

Lovich, J.E., Mittermeier, R.A., Pritchard, P.C.H., Rhodin, A.G.J., and Gibbons, J.W. 2000. Powdermill Conference: trouble for the world’s turtles. Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter 1:16-17.

Rhodin, A.G.J. 2000a. Publisher’s editorial: turtle survival crisis. Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter 1:2-3.

Rhodin, A.G.J. 2000b. Powdermill IV: International Freshwater Turtle Conference. Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter 1:15-16.

van Dijk, P.P., Stuart, B.L., and Rhodin, A.G.J. Eds. 2000. Asian Turtle Trade: Proceedings of a Workshop on Conservation and Trade of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises in Asia. Chelonian Research Monographs 2:1-164.