Asia's Turtle Tragedy

These ancient symbols of longevity outlived the dinosaurs, but can turtles and tortoises survive the region's modern-day demand for them as food and traditional medicine?

  • Anthony Mecir
  • Feb 01, 2006

AMID THE FRAGRANCE of incense and flowers, a cheerful vendor scoops up turtles and hands them in plastic buckets to throngs of worshippers at Bangkok's 200-year-old Rakhang Temple. On this, a Buddhist holy day, the faithful carry the creatures--squirming hatchlings and sedate adults--to the fronting river, clasp their hands together in prayer and release them into its lapping waters.

The act of merciful liberation, they believe, will earn them rewards in future lives, and perhaps even in this one. "Set a turtle free and you'll enjoy a long life, not to mention a strong, healthy body," advises Angkhana Thongsaksi, the seller, as temple bells tinkle in the background.

But despite such deep-rooted reverence, conservationists fear a death knell is sounding for the turtle in Thailand and across the continent. They say this Asian icon of longevity, happiness and wisdom, having survived more than 200 million years and outlived the dinosaurs, is being battered by a modern, multipronged assault and headed toward extinction.

More than half the estimated 90 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises in the region are now listed as "endangered" or "critically endangered" by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), victims of habitat destruction, the pet and ornamental trades and, most dramatically, the insatiable appetite of the Chinese for turtles as food and traditional medicine. Biologists say that today they're more likely to find a rare, or even scientifically unknown, chelonian species in the markets of Shanghai or Guangzhou than in the wild.

According to biologist and turtle conservationist Peter Paul van Dijk of Conservation International, an IUCN specialist on Asian turtles, at least 20 million freshwater turtles and tortoises are consumed in China each year, vacuumed up at home or obtained from Southeast Asia and even beyond via legal means as well as a spiderweb of smuggling routes. "The Chinese are going to eat every turtle on Earth if they can," says Jonathan Murray, a Bangkok-based turtle biologist. 

Dubbed the "Asian Turtle Crisis" by conservationists, this mass slaughter shifted into high gear in 1989, the year China's currency became convertible, allowing turtles and other wildlife to be easily imported as commodities. Consumption soared in the 1990s with growing economic prosperity and the rise of a middle class eager to acquire the status and purported health benefits of eating exotic fare, with turtle near the top of the menu and apothecary bill.

In jellied form, soup, pills and tonics like "essence of tortoise," turtle parts are fervently believed to cure a range of ills including rheumatism, heart ailments and cancer while increasing longevity and sexual prowess. A pill, which includes turtle shell and vinegar-treated rhubarb, is said to treat endometriosis, a cause of female infertility. In the early 1990s a controversial track coach, Ma Junren, administered a secret potion of turtle blood and caterpillar fungus to a team of women distance runners who shattered world records.

Given China's growing 1.3 billion population, plus leaps in individual purchasing power, the toll on turtles is mounting. After exhausting their own wild supplies, Chinese traders began working with traffickers in Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Bangladesh, then extended their footprint to Malaysia and Indonesia when populations nearer home became depleted.

Even in the continent's most remote villages, the word is out that turtles mean money. In Laos, the very rare three-striped box turtle, believed to cure cancer, can fetch more than $1,200 (U.S.) per animal--about three times the per capita income in that impoverished country. Given such incentives, Asian villagers comb forest floors, river beds, stream valleys and rice fields in search of the reptiles. Turtles are speared, netted, dug out of mud, trapped, tracked down by dogs and caught on lines using baited hooks or pins.

Once captured, the animals are sold to middlemen who scoop them up wholesale for delivery to traders in larger cities. The final destination more often than not is China, although sizeable numbers are also sent to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and ethnic Chinese communities in the region and around the world. From besieged habitats to soup pots, the turtles are moved along jungle trails, rivers, sea lanes and by air--the preferred mode given its speed and higher survival rate. To cross frontiers, illegally traded chelonians are stuffed into suitcases, packed under legal merchandise or falsely labeled as seafood. In one recent shipment out of Cambodia, about a dozen elongated tortoises were wrapped in cellophane to stop noise of their movements from reaching the ears of customs inspectors.

According to TRAFFIC, a wildlife-trade monitoring network that oversees the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Indonesia and Malaysia are the major sources of wild-caught turtles and tortoises today. Like all Asian countries, both nations have signed the CITES treaty, which either bans or heavily regulates international trade of more than half the region's freshwater turtle and tortoise species.

While only pets can now be legally exported from Indonesia, and China has banned import of Indonesian turtles altogether, TRAFFIC's Chris Shepherd says large numbers of Indonesian turtles are still ending up in China's meat markets. The culprit is often Malaysia, where legislation to protect chelonians is so weak that even the most highly CITES-protected species bootlegged into the country can be legally sold. Dealers tell Shepherd that turtles from Indonesia are frequently re-exported to China with documents labeling them as Malaysian turtles. Others are simply smuggled. Shepherd says both legal and illegal exports from Indonesia, and indeed everywhere in the region, are dropping, but that is hardly good news. "You talk to the dealers and they say it's because turtles in the wild are becoming harder to find," he notes. "On the ground, things are much worse than they were five years ago." 

And China's craving for ye wei, or "wild taste," is not the only threat to Asia's chelonians. In the pet section of Bangkok's Chatuchak Market, among screeching Amazonian parrots and placid pythons under glass, half a dozen dealers openly offer legally protected, endangered turtles and tortoises from around the world, including Fly River turtles from Papua New Guinea, spider tortoises from Madagascar and star tortoises from the Indian subcontinent.

Most of the buyers are Thai turtle fanciers but dealers also come down from Japan, where cramped living quarters make the reptiles highly popular pets and rare species are avidly collected. The Indian star tortoise, endowed with a beautiful, radiating star pattern on its carapace, can go for as much as 2.5 million yen, or about $24,000 (U.S.).

Asian turtles also end up in European and North American homes. The Roti Island snake-necked turtle, only described in the mid-1990s and endemic to that single Indonesian island, may already be close to extinction in the wild because of intense demand by Westerners, says Shepherd.

Even religious practices, like the Buddhist releases in Bangkok and elsewhere in Asia, take their toll. Having paid their 25 cents to free each hatchling, well-meaning Rakhang Temple worshippers deposit the turtles into the Chao Phraya River, a waterway roiling with raw sewage and chemical pollutants. Trying to scuttle back up the concrete steps at the river's edge, most of the animals are swept into the brown, swift-flowing water.

"Buddhists are unlikely to gain merit from releasing these animals because they are likely to die, unable to survive in unfamiliar environments," says Police Lieutenant Colonel Thanayos Kengkasikit, whose men that holy day raided temples across Thailand, where all 27 native turtle species are officially protected yet still heavily collected.

Some conservationists, however, are beginning to see glimmers of hope for Asia's chelonians. "We're starting to get some understanding of the situation, but we still don't have it under control," says Craig Kirkpatrick, who directs TRAFFIC's East Asia program.

One positive sign comes from Singapore, which has banned all trade of reptiles as pets except for the red-eared slider, a species native to the U.S. Southeast that is bred in captivity. In Indonesia, some traffickers are being caught (though rarely prosecuted), and last year CITES increased protection for five species of Asian turtles and tortoises. Meanwhile, an international coalition of zoos, private individuals and a few government authorities is working to improve turtle conservation in protected areas and has begun breeding colonies in the event that some species go extinct in the wild.

Turtle farming is also booming, although few species breed well enough in captivity to meet demand. Farming may also increase pressure on breeding stock captured in the wild. "The simple fact that you're farming doesn't mean that the wild species are out of danger," says van Dijk. "Look at the water buffalo. There are millions that are being farmed for use as domestic animals while the wild buffalo is on its last legs." But since demand for turtle remains high, he adds: "I'd rather have those turtles supplied from farms than harvested from the wild as stocks decline and prices increase, providing incentives for people to hunt down the last few turtles."

Over the past two decades, Southeast Asians have shipped tons of farmed turtles, mostly softshells, to China. Half a dozen species are also being farmed in China, where secretive breeding operations in the back alleys of provincial towns target such prized species as the three-striped box turtle, also known as the golden coin turtle. "These farmers are not advertising that they are sitting on millions of dollars worth of turtles," van Dijk says. "The fact that you have three layers of barbed wire and six vicious German shepherds patrolling the grounds suggests there is something valuable there."

Van Dijk and others who monitor the Chinese conservation scene say that awareness of environmental issues is increasing in the country, especially among educated urban dwellers. But stopping the killing of turtles for food and medicine would go against ingrained traditions going back 3,000 years, even to the era of Chinese myth-makers who envisioned the cosmos as spawned from the union of a snake and a turtle, a celestial guardian of one of the four cardinal directions. In China, "eating turtle is a very powerful symbol of longevity and stability in the community," says Kirkpatrick.

He hopes a proverb plucked from that Chinese tradition will prove true: "The white crane lives 1,000 years and the turtle 10,000 years."

Anthony Mecir writes about wildlife and conservation issues from his home in Southeast Asia.

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