There is an alarming tragedy taking place over many parts of Asia, particularly South East Asia, affecting the very existence of chelonia which demands our attention. About one third of the species of fresh water turtles (terrapins) and tortoises, which occur in South and East Asia are according to the IUCN Red List of 1996, endangered to a greater or lesser extent; and since 1996 the situation has worsened considerably. The reasons for this include local consumption, collection for the regional and international pet trades and human consumption, the degrading and destruction of the habitat and the introduction of predators and competitors to chelonia. By far the most significant of these factors is the international trade which has expanded by leaps and bounds in the last five years. Try to imagine if you can an enormous vacuum cleaner sucking out these creatures from their habitats into the food markets of Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan as well as satisfying pet collectors who scramble for possession more avidly as the threatened species become rarer. I do not have words to describe to you sufficiently the disaster enveloping turtles in that part of the world.
THE REASONS FOR THE TRADE
Turtle meat has for centuries been considered a culinary delicacy in Asia and there is a widespread belief that there are medicinal and health benefits to be gained from eating turtle bones and shells. As the economies of South East Asia have prospered over the last decade, more of the populations of these countries have been able to afford to purchase these reptiles in the markets. The Chinese particularly have been able to purchase huge quantities since they made their currency fully convertible in 1989. Sometimes the turtles are slaughtered simply for their bones and shells and the meat discarded. There is a well established Organisation for the collection and distribution of turtles and tortoises and it is spreading its net wider and wider throughout the world to satisfy the increasing demand. There are reports that terrapins are being collected in South America for the trade. In some countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh the chelonia population is near a state of collapse and huge numbers are being exported from Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Myanmar (Bunna).
THE MEANS AND STATISTICS
Live turtles are exported to the markets by air, land and sea. The demands are so great that some countries are beginning to farm the most sought after turtles such as the Chinese Soft Shell (Pelodiscus sinensis) but this production so far nowhere meets the size of the market. The most recent data available reveals that a minimum of 13,000 metric tons of live turtles are being exported from South and South East Asia each year. This figure may be much larger since it is difficult to ascertain exact figures from places such as Laos, Cambodia and Burma. Hong Kong alone which transports turtles to the rest of China imported 13.500 tons in 1998. It is certain that huge numbers of turtles are perishing each year in this part of the world.
THE EFFECT OF THE TRADE
The market prices for some species that command high value in the trade like the Three Banded Box Turtle (Cuora trifasciata) which is thought to have cancer curing qualities has risen exorbitantly in the last 15 years. In the mid 1980s a turtle of this species could fetch between 50 and 100 dollars in the American pet trade. Because the numbers had declined so markedly the prices in the mid 1990s had risen to 1500 dollars 12 per kilo. Now there are hunters for this "little goldmine" in the smallest villages of Indo-china. The survival of this species (as is the case with some other species) in the wild appears increasingly unlikely. The true picture of this tragedy needs more clarification and the need is great for more long-term field studies and population status surveys to assess the extent of the intensive collection of turtles over the whole spectrum of species. All we can be sure of is that the exploited populations are in decline and many are in severe or critical decline.
Wildlife conservationists and other interested organisations are currently discussing ways and means of countering this threat to the survival of Asia's freshwater turtles and tortoises at a series of meetings. The ideas being discussed are:
- improving the legal protection of turtles and adequately enforcing CITES regulations;
- coordinating biological studies and captive breeding programmes;
- seeking means of obtaining better information on the true position by mounting more and improved status surveys;
- safeguarding viable turtle populations in protected areas of their habitats;
- eliminating or reducing the demand for the collection of turtles in the wild either by discovering alternatives to turtle shell and bone used in traditional medicine or promoting fanning of selected (non-endangered) species;
- promoting the public awareness of the plight of the Asian turtles.
THE ROLE OF THE BCG
Clearly the BCG must play a part in helping to counter the threat to the turtles of South East Asia where the need is greatest. Accordingly both Don Freeman (the Chairman) and I (the Conservation Officer) have paid visits to Jersey Zoo to discuss what we can best do jointly. The BCG have cooperated several times in recent years with the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and readers will recall the Angonoka, the Kapidolo and the Re-Re Appeals of recent years which have borne much fruit in saving endangered species of chelonia in Madagascar. The exact nature of the effort we are going to make jointly is not yet decided but we have discussed the possibility of setting up a breeding facility for one of the critically endangered species at the Jersey Zoo. In addition or instead we could link up with the Cuc Phuong Conservation Project in Vietnam which has started the herculean task of setting aside safe areas and protecting endangered species there. Jersey Zoo are considering the possibility of financing one of the Vietnamese staff to offer them the valuable training in conservation techniques available there. Much will depend on the outcome of the meetings taking place which I have mentioned. Therefore I am asking our members to trust the BCG Committee to find the very best way to finance a practical method of making our contribution to redressing the threat to the turtles in South East Asia. I will, of course, keep you informed of the progress being made throughout 2001.
BOB LANGTON, CONSERVATION OFFICER