Risky Business

Providing safekeeping for Southeast Asia's vanishing turtles

10-01-2000 // Ted Williams

Maybe the patient is getting better. Two days earlier his nose had been running, indicating possible pneumonia. Now his lungs seem clear, but one eye is still crusted shut and he isn´t eating.

Barbara Bonner—thin, intense, six years out of veterinary school—sticks her thumb and forefinger into the rough, black-spotted shell of this 12-inch-long Forsten´s tortoise (native to Southeast Asia and one of 14 she has just received by air freight), pushes apart the forelegs, grasps the blond head and pulls it into view. "You shouldn´t be able to do this to a healthy animal," she says. Now Bonner opens her patient´s mouth and inserts her finger. (She´s happy when they bite her because it means they´re getting their strength back.) Then she drops in a white tablet and rams it down with a metal feeding tube.

Although she won´t turn away the occasional injured native turtle, Bonner, who runs the Turtle Hospital of New England in Upton, Massachusetts, is not a traditional wildlife rehabilitator. The facility´s mission is saving species rather than individuals. The sick Asian turtles Bonner cures will never be released into the wild, although she hopes their descendants someday will be. In Southeast Asia—one of two major centers of turtle diversity on Earth—65 species representing 25 percent of the world´s total are careening toward extinction. Bonner is reacting to what she calls "the greatest reptile crisis since the demise of the dinosaurs."

In China, where people have eaten turtles for thousands of years in the belief that they can cheat death by consuming the flesh of long-lived creatures, most wild turtles long ago disappeared. Elsewhere in Asia, however, turtles were holding their own until a little more than a decade ago when Chinese currency became convertible on the world market. Suddenly China was a black hole, sucking down turtles from dozens of nations. Hong Kong alone imported 7.7 million pounds of the animals in 1996. After a recent trek to Vietnam—a country that once had one of the richest turtle faunas on Earth—Ross Keister of the U.S. Forest Service´s global biodiversity team filed this report: "Wherever we looked there was what we called a reverse pet shop. A storefront with signs advertising that they will buy any kind of turtle. We´ve been recently told that those stores are closing since there are no more turtles left to buy."

In July 1997, Bonner´s friend and fellow vet William McCord, a turtle researcher from upstate New York, videotaped activity at two food markets in southern China where he and a colleague estimate that 10,000 turtles representing 37 species were sold in 48 hours. Included were at least five nearly extinct species which China had agreed not to buy or sell by signing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1981.

The daughter of a U.S. diplomat born in Lebanon, Bonner has loved reptiles and amphibians since she was four and found a young toad in a sewer drain. "I thought it was the neatest little thing I´d ever seen," she says. "After that I would pick up toads and frogs and hold them in front of my eyes. I was so nearsighted they were the only animals I could see in sharp focus. Until I was seven and got glasses, I didn´t even know trees had leaves all the way up."

Bonner has converted ten rooms of the 12-room house she shares with her environmental engineer husband, Mike Penko, into a turtle facility. Because the operation "hemorrhages money," Bonner works nights at two emergency vet clinics. In addition she teaches reptile clinical medicine to graduate students at Tufts University Wildlife Clinic in Grafton, Massachusetts.

After Asia, the world´s second-largest center of turtle diversity is the United States, where 54 species occupy every conceivable habitat from desert to coastal marsh. Twenty-nine of these species are found in lakes, ponds, marshes and bogs; 13 in rivers and streams; 5 primarily on land; 6 in salt water; and 1 in brackish water. While Americans can do little to stop the turtle crisis underway in Southeast Asia, Bonner points out that they have the opportunity to keep U.S. turtles from suffering the same fate by strengthening regulations for their collecting and shipping.

U.S. turtle species whose popularity as pets have placed them in obvious danger—the gopher tortoise, desert tortoise, wood turtle, spotted turtle, Blanding´s turtle and bog turtle, for example—are protected by strict state and federal laws, but regulations for species that are not yet rare are thoroughly inadequate. Chinese buyers are now in the United States and some of our turtles are being exported by the ton. In its entire life, often more than a century, a turtle may produce only one surviving offspring. So adults represent an enormous genetic investment. Sustainable harvest of any species may be impossible.

Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not record whether live turtles exported from the United States wind up in Chinese food markets or the foreign pet trade, the agency´s statistics show alarming trends. For example, from 1995 to 1999 exports of softshell turtles (species of the genus Apalone) increased from 8,087 to 20,193; alligator snappers (Macroclemys) from 5,696 to 19,528; sliders (Trachemys) from 60,126 to 429,247; and cooters (Pseudemys) from 19,710 to 2,169,407. One dealer is reported to have shipped 5,000 softshells out of Florida weekly in the summer of 1998.

Softshells and common snappers are severely depleted in parts of the Midwest. In a recent study at Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee, researchers from the Tennessee Aquarium marked 4,000 turtles that are being harvested legally for the Chinese market—red-eared sliders, softshells, river cooters, painteds, maps and common snappers. At each study site and for each species, population models showed sharp decreases. Here, and all over the world, turtles are being removed from the wild faster than they can repopulate. One broker in Vietnam reports shipping about 3,000 pounds of North American turtles to China each week.

Bonner believes the future of Southeast Asia´s turtles is in the hands of private turtle conservationists willing to acquire food-market refugees by whatever means possible (most likely from American pet-industry buyers who visit China), restore them to health at facilities like hers, then breed them. Just such a turtle conservationist in Wisconsin had shipped her the 14 sick Forsten´s tortoises. In the two months that followed, she managed to save nine. "If you get a core of 50 people like that and each takes a group of a species, maybe you can create a hope," says Bonner.

Currently, she is working with 15 Southeast Asian species. She will do more if she can get funding to hire her five volunteers as full-time employees and to construct a building which, because Southeast Asian turtles are tropical, would operate like a solar greenhouse. "These species are simply not going to exist in their native countries," she declares. "You don´t change the mind-set of a culture that has eaten turtles for 2,000 years."

If the nations of Southeast Asia ever decide to protect turtles, efforts like Bonner´s will at least provide a reservoir of captive stock for reintroduction. But not all turtle conservationists agree that persuading the Chinese to desist from eating turtles is hopeless or even that Bonner´s plan can work. However, says herpetologist James Harding of the Michigan State University Museum, a turtle advisor to the IUCN—World Conservation Union: "I´ve always argued against depending on breeding programs to maintain turtle populations, mainly because adults are taken from the wild. But if you go into food markets and pull out a few specimens for breeding programs, you´re not doing any harm at all; the situation in Southeast Asia is so desperate that I´m attracted to the idea."

Harding agrees with Bonner that captive breeding in the United States has to be a coordinated effort, however. "If we have hobbyists breeding these turtles but nobody´s keeping track of sources and lineages, then I think it´s all going to devolve into chaos," he says.

"Establishing captive populations of Southeast Asian turtles is a desperate move fraught with problems," comments Bonner´s colleague, Gretchen Kaufman, an assistant professor of wildlife medicine at Tufts University. "It´s going to be extraordinarily difficult, and Bonner can´t possibly do it alone. But that´s how solutions to wildlife crises begin. You get an amazing, tireless person pushing, and all of a sudden a movement starts."

Despite the enormous task confronting her, Barbara Bonner stays upbeat by healing and breeding the few turtles that find their way to her clinic. "We can´t let these beautiful creatures flicker out," she says. "Turtles predate the dinosaurs; they´ve been on Earth for 230 million years. I don´t want to live in a world without them."

Ted Williams shares an obsession with fishing and bird hunting, but definitely not baseball, with the "real" (or, as he much prefers, "elder") Ted Williams. In April 1997 Ted the younger received the National Wildlife Federation´s Conservation Achievement Award for his writings on wildlife conservation.

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