Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, 2000, 5:16-17
© 2000 by Chelonian Research Foundation

Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter

Pu Mat Turtle Hunter Interview

William H. Espenshade III 1,3 and Le Thien Duc 2
1The Wetlands Institute, 1075 Stone Harbor Blvd., Stone Harbor, NJ 08247-1424
2Turtle Conservation and Ecology Project, Cuc Phuong Conservation Project, Cuc Phuong National Park,
Nho Quan District, Nihn Bihn Province, Vietnam; E-mail:
3PO Box 26018, Philadelphia PA 19128 (correspondence address); E-mail:

While in Vietnam’s Nghe An Province the authors interviewed individuals involved in turtle trade. Rangers from Pu Mat Nature Reserve, motorcycle drivers (a sort of taxi service), and local police authorities assisted us in finding people involved in the illegal turtle trade. Everyone we interviewed lived along Highway 7 in Nghe An province bordering Pu Mat Nature Reserve.

On 20 January 2001, we were introduced to a retired turtle hunter. Mr. Quang (not his real name) hunted turtles from 1983 to 2000, but retired when one son accidentally shot and killed another, mistaking him for game in the bushes. Mr. Quang took this as a sign that his family’s career as turtle hunters was over and began farming instead. This is the first time that Mr. Quang has been interviewed about his turtle collecting activities.

The hunting period for all turtles was April to September and local hunters, like Mr. Quang, used dogs to hunt terrestrial species. The dogs, never formally trained, learned how to hunt turtles from their mother. They appeared to use primarily visual cues since they rarely found turtles buried in the leaf litter or wood duff nor did they ever find turtle nests. Often the dogs would find one turtle partially exposed under a log, but additional searches in the same locale by the hunters would find additional hidden turtles.

The information Mr. Quang has on eggs is from captured females who dropped their eggs in captivity or from dead females. When a turtle died, it was eaten. While cleaning the turtles for cooking, information was obtained by the hunters on the number of eggs present and the type of items in the digestive tract.

Specific Species Caught by Mr. Quang
The first turtle we discussed was a terrestrial species with an oblong round shell and a hinge that could close up tightly. It was dark with light patches along each side of the carapace and a thin light strip right down the middle. The plastron was usually all black. Males had a red throat color and females yellow. We believe this turtle to be Cuora galbinifrons.

These turtles were found along the hillsides, usually alongside fallen logs. The easiest time to find them was immediately after rain. Often there would be a small group of two males and one female.

Mr. Quang never observed these turtles dropping eggs, but examination of dead females usually revealed two eggs. Based on the contents of the digestive tract, they appeared to eat worms, mushrooms and rotten wood.

The price of these turtles ranged from 60,000 to 150,000 Dong/kg. The exchange rate at the time of this interview was 14,500 Vietnam Dong to $1.00 US. They could get 20 kg on a good day with a total of about 300 kg for the total hunting season. At about 1,200 gms per turtle this is approximately equivalent to 250 captures.

The second species caught was a large, terrestrial turtle. The maximum size observed for this turtle was 30 cm (length) and 4 kg. It was dark brown to black with lighter areas on its carapace and had large scales on its front legs, sharp pointed scales on its buttocks, and no hinge. This turtle was very strong and could go over a month without being fed. We believe that this turtle is Manouria impressa.

Called the Mountain Ridge turtle by the locals, they were usually found on hilltops where it was cool and usually foggy. When it was very hot they could sometimes be found in small pools along the ridges. They hid in root buttress hollows and small rock caves. The diet included mushrooms and rotten wood.

When the dogs find one, another turtle of the opposite sex was often directly in front of or behind the first turtle. Males have an Adam’s apple and follow females, making a “chet chet chet” sound. During May to July, captured females might drop 10-12 eggs. These were also observed in dead females.

These turtles were found throughout the hunting season from April to September. During a typical hunting trip of 10 days to two weeks, Mr. Quang and his family might collect 50 individuals of varying sizes. These turtles have a low value, only 25,000 Dong/kg, but due to the turtle’s ability to survive long periods of time with minimal care, they are worth collecting despite the buyers not actively seeking them.

One additional question for the hunter regarding this type of turtle was about its nesting habits. Based on the nesting ecology of Manouria emys phayrei reported by McKeown 1990 (Eds. note see article on pg. 2), we asked if they had ever found this kind of turtle around piles of leaf litter, similar to what is locally thought of as a pig pile? No, they had not.

The third type of turtle that we discussed was a small dark turtle, locally called the Serrated turtle. We believe that this species is Geoemyda spengleri. The maximum size that Mr. Quang recalled seeing was 10 (l) by 6 (w) cm and 300 grams. Males had very long thick tails. These turtles were rare, with only 2-3 being found per trip during July and August. They were usually found in streambeds that no longer have a flow, but still had moisture. Eggs were never seen. Examination of the digestive tract revealed mushrooms and rotten wood. Traders don’t seek them since they are only worth 25,000 Dong/kg. The dogs usually ate them.

Type four was an aquatic turtle that went by the name Parrot Beak. They usually weighed 600-800 grams and were 20-22 cm long and about 13 cm wide. They had very long tails and could bite very hard. Males had chin glands. When held together in holding tanks, mating was observed. Eggs were never found. This was the most valuable type of turtle worth about 400,000 Dong/kg. We believe this species is Platysternon megacephalum.

Dogs can’t find these, so the hunters use hooks in a circle with bait in the middle. They live in streams where there are deep pools near fast moving murky water. Usually only one, maybe two, will be caught per pool. Occasionally they are observed hiding in shady, shallow, cool water with their body down in a crevice, head poking out. Crab shells are found in their intestines.

Type five was a rare, aquatic turtle that the locals named Bad Smell turtle. We believe this was Sacalia quadriocellata. They were approximately 20 (l) by 12 (w) cm and weighed 400-500 grams each. Their shells were reddish-brown, domed, had keels and lacked hinges and they had stripes on their heads. They were found in both deep and shallow water pools in June and July. Normally they were caught in basket fish traps, only twice did Mr. Quang catch them on Parrot Beak turtle hooks. Mr. Quang never observed any of their eggs nor did he have any knowledge of what they might eat. They had a low value of only 25,000 dong/kg.

Mr. Quang had no trophy shells or other artifacts from his turtle-hunting career around his home, but his son said that an uncle had a shell found locally in Quang Phuc hamlet. The shell was that of Cuora galbinifrons galbinifrons. We will describe it in another publication.

Additional Interviews
Next we went to the home of a turtle broker, the middleman between people who have incidentally acquired turtles and traders bound for China, but he wasn’t home. We spoke to his wife for only a few minutes, but she was paranoid that we were investigating her husband’s illegal trade. She had one Big-headed turtle, Platysternon megacephalum, that she indicated she would use as a remedy for an ailment. When asked for exactly what ailment the turtle was useful, she said that her knee hurt and eating the turtle would help. The turtle trader’s wife was very anxious about speaking with us, and quickly a large crowd of curious onlookers developed, even following us into the backyard and storeroom/garage of the house. The overall feeling was uneasy, so this interview ended without much information gained.

Our motorcycle driver brought us to another location, this time a traditional medicine shop. The shop owner had only a Cuora carapace used as a scoop for bins of dried plant products. We asked why the carapace was only worth being used as a scoop, while plastrons were so valuable. We were told that the carapace could only protect the turtle from mechanical damage from above, while the plastron kept away disease that came from the ground. When asked for more details, we were told that it cured lung problems.

The rest of our efforts at interviews proved fruitless. Mr. Quang, had been the most outspoken, but as he no longer participated in this illegal commerce he had nothing to loose by speaking with us.

We would like to thank Hoang Hoa Que, Director of the Pu Mat Management Authority for facilitating the required permissions from Provincial, District and Commune authorities; Doug Hendrie and Vu Thi Quyen for facilitating the appropriate visa for entering Vietnam; and Roger Wood and Cindy O’Connor, both of The Wetlands Institute, for their effective introduction of William Espenshade to the authorities in Vietnam. Many local individuals along Hyway seven helped us both including Hoang Hoa Que’s son Ky, Rangers from Pu Mat Nature Reserve and local Con Cuong Commune police.

McKeown, Sean, Duane E, Meier and James O. Juvik.1990. The Management and Breeding of the Asian Forest Tortoise (Manouria emys) in Captivity. In: Proceedings of the First International Symposium on Turtle and Tortoises: Conservation and Captive Husbandry, Chapman University August 9-12, editors Beaman, Kent, R., et. al.