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For tortoise, terrapin and turtle care and conservation


Kevin R. Buley
Curator of Lower Vertebrates & Invertebrates,
North of England Zoological Society, Chester Zoo, United Kingdom
Presented to the BCG Symposium 19th March 2005 at the Open University, Milton Keynes.
"Because they are still living, turtles are commonplace objects to us: were they entirely extinct, their shells – the most remarkable defensive armor ever assumed by a tetrapod – would be a cause for wonder."
Alfred Sherwood Romer (1894–1973)
"We are facing a turtle survival crisis unprecedented in its severity and risk. Without intervention, countless species will be lost over the next few decades."
Anders G. J. Rhodin, IUCN, TFTSG co-chair


Turtles and tortoises have been on our planet for almost 250 million years. This means that they have witnessed the rise and fall of dinosaurs, they watched the first birds fly, and they have observed our own rapid evolution from the most harmless of primates. Now, in the space of less than thirty years they are being wiped from the face of the planet.

Man has exploited turtles and tortoises for centuries – for their supposed medicinal value, and as a source of protein. However, the ‘open door policy’ of China’s economic reforms, and the liberalisation of foreign trade, have escalated the trade and consumption of turtles and tortoises to an unsustainable, fatal degree.The following figures give some indication of the scale of trade in Asian freshwater turtles – though the numbers are really beyond rational comprehension:

  • Estimates suggest that over 12 million turtles are being sold in China each year. Many of these animals will be wild caught, and, given the low reproductive and growth rate of many species, extirpation from the wild is inevitable.
  • Only a very small proportion of turtles now offered in markets are native Chinese species. The import of food chelonians to China has increased more than ten-fold since 1977, from countries including Vietnam, Indonesia, India, New Guinea and, incredibly, the USA (over 7 million turtles of several species are exported each year from the United States). Chinese importers have scouts as far afield as Paraguay in search of new sources of turtle and tortoise.
  • During an investigation in 1998, up to 29 tonnes of wildlife per day were being exported from Vietnam to China. More than 60% of this volume was turtles. This represents up to 17.4 tonnes of turtles per day. If one turtle weighs, on average, 1kg, this is equivalent to a trade of up to 17,400 turtles per day from Vietnam alone.
Piles of Asian Box Turtles

Piles of Asian Box Turtle Cuora amboinensus await export to food markets from a holding facility in Medan, Sumatra.
Photo by CR Shepherd(TRAFFIC/Southeast Asia)

New freshwater turtle species have literally been discovered in the Chinese food markets. No wild reports exist at all for species such as McCord’s box turtle Cuora mccordi, and Zhou’s box turtle Cuora zhoui – they have only ever been seen in markets. This suggests that areas of previously untouched habitat have been exploited to meet the demand for turtle meat. More worrying still, these species turned up in the markets during the late 1990s, but are now rarely seen – indicating commercial (if not total) extinction in the wild.

The problem is not confined to the mass trade in China and the South-East Asian region. Throughout the world, turtle and tortoise habitats are being degraded, fragmented, destroyed and developed. Where populations persist they are often subjected to unnaturally high predation pressures from introduced wild and domestic animals, they are victims of subsistence hunting, egg collecting, pollution and shell use, and they are under threat from collection for regional and international consumptive trade (bushmeat). Many of the 265+ species also face varying pressures from the international pet trade and are collected from the wild in unsustainable numbers.

The current IUCN Red List (International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 2004) shows that, of the currently recognised 265 species of tortoise and freshwater turtle;

  • 8 are listed as Extinct or Extinct in the Wild
  • 25 are Critically Endangered
  • 46 are Endangered
  • 57 are Vulnerable

All seven marine turtle species are also listed by IUCN. The world’s largest turtle species, the leatherback, is now Critically Endangered, and the other six species are either listed as Endangered or Vulnerable. Almost 100 species of tortoise and freshwater turtle are still to be evaluated by the IUCN and those that have been assessed are regularly being elevated to a higher status of risk as the global crisis escalates.

It is humans that are driving many species to the point of extinction. It is humans that must act now to save them . . . .


The EAZA Shellshock campaign has three main aims – or 'Mission Targets':


Each year the European Association of Zoos & Aquaria (EAZA) adopts an annual Conservation Campaign – a cause under which its 300 member institutions can unite, promote and raise funds. Previous EAZA campaigns have included tigers, the bushmeat crisis and conservation of the Atlantic Rainforest.

The latest EAZA Conservation Campaign is called ‘Shellshock’, and focuses exclusively on the global conservation crisis facing turtles and tortoises. The campaign was launched in September 2004 at the Annual EAZA Conference in Kolmarden, Sweden. Keynote speakers at the launch included co-chair of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group (TFTSG) – Dr Anders Rhodin, and one of China’s leading turtle biologists – Professor Shi Haitao, from Hainan Normal University.

  1. Raising awareness of one of the biggest vertebrate taxon extinction events since the disappearance of the dinosaurs.
  2. Promoting and supporting further participation in "Turtle Arks" - in the managed captive safety-net populations set up for priority species.
  3. Fundraising initiatives for specific in situ turtle & tortoise conservation projects.

These Campaign Mission Targets are detailed below.

Mission Target One – Raising Awareness

Although they may not be considered by many to be as charismatic as some mammals or birds, tortoises and turtles should nevertheless have the capacity to evoke great affection and sympathy amongst the 125 million zoo and aquarium visitors that EAZA has each year. The Shellshock campaign highlights the conservation and welfare plight that many species face and the urgent action needed to save them.

Participating zoos and aquariums are encouraged to develop their own turtle and tortoise interpretative signing using the abundance of information and photographs available in the official Shellshock information pack circulated by EAZA. Photographic images have been very generously donated to the campaign by turtle experts from around the world. These images range from breathtaking portraits of individual animals through to harrowing collages of the worst aspects of the Asian trade.

Shellshock has also enlisted the assistance of an official mascot for the period of the campaign. 'Oscar the Turtle' is one of the stars of 'Creature Comforts' the fantastic series of clay-animation films from the triple Oscar winning Aardman Animations in Bristol, England. Oscar the Turtle appears on a range of exclusive Shellshock merchandise items – including t-shirts, mugs and mouse mats.

Oscar the turtle

Oscar the Turtle – The Shellshock Campaign Mascot – Creature Comforts© Aardman Animations 2003.

Mission Target Two – Building the Ark

With the current scale of the global turtle conservation crisis, many species of turtle and tortoise are doomed to extinction in the wild within the next few years. In the short term, therefore, the only hope of survival for many species is in captivity – in populations planned, established and managed specifically for this purpose. The IUCN Turtle Survival Alliance is working towards the establishment of these Assurance Colonies, and the Shellshock campaign encourages and supports greater European zoo and aquarium participation in these 'Turtle Arks'.

The Shellshock campaign has identified 36 priority species for captive management, with which it is believed that the European zoo and aquarium community are best placed and equipped to help. The Shellshock information pack contains species information sheets for each of the priority species, which will enable institutions to plan effectively the extension of their turtle collections.

The 36 priority species have been classified (in increasing level of urgency) as Black Alert (6 species), Amber Alert (15 species) or Red Alert (15 species).

Black Alert 'Turtle Ark' Species are IUCN Red List 2004 Lower Risk/near threatened, unlisted species, or species with a higher Red List classisifcation (Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered), for which ex situ captive populations are not considered to be a vital component of their conservation.

The primary role of Black Alert species will be as Educational species in zoos and aquariums, rather than as Turtle Ark Assurance Populations. These species have been identified for institutions with limited turtle and tortoise experience.

The six Black Alert species are:

Red-footed tortoiseGeochelone carbonaria
Yellow-footed tortoiseGeochelone denticulata
Radiated tortoiseGeochelone radiata
Pancake tortoiseMalacochersus tornieri
South American river turtlePodocnemis expansa
Hermann’s tortoiseTestudo hermanni

Amber Alert ‘Turtle Ark’ species are in the second highest level of alert category. They are IUCN Red List 2004 Vulnerable and Endangered species. The 15 Amber Alert species are:

South Asian box turtleCuora amboinensis
Yellow-margined box turtleCuora flavomarginata
Red-necked pond turtleChinemys nigricans
Indian star tortoiseGeochelone elegans
Japanese leaf turtleGeoemyda japonica
Black-breasted leaf turtleGeoemyda spengleri
Spiny hill turtleHeosemys spinosa
Giant Asian pond turtleHeosemys grandis
Elongated tortoiseIndotestudo elongata
Asian giant tortoiseManouria emys
Bornean river turtleOrlitia borneensis
Malagasy spider tortoisePyxis arachnoides
Malagasy flat-tailed tortoisePyxis planicauda
Beal's eyed tortoiseSacalia bealei
Four-eyed tortoiseSacalia quadriocellata

Red Alert is the most urgent level of alert – for Critically Endangered (CR) species that are in the most immediate danger of extinction in the wild, or Extinct in the Wild (EW) species that have already been extirpated and exist now only in captive populations. The 15 Red Alert species are:

Painted river turtleCallagur borneoensis
Roti Island snake-necked turtleChelodina mccordi
Yellow-headed box turtleCuora aurocapitata
Flowerback box turtleCuora galbinifrons
McCord's box turtleCuora mccordi
Pan's box turtleCuora pani
Golden coin box turtleCuora trifasciata
Zhou's box turtleCuora zhoui
Sulawesi forest turtleLeucocephalon yuwonoi
Annam leaf turtleMauremys annamensis
Egyptian tortoiseTestudo kleinmanni
Negev tortoiseTestudo werneri
Burmese star tortoiseGeochelone platynota
Depressed turtleHeosemys depressa
Red-crowned roof turtleKachuga kachuga

It is hoped that over the course of the Shellshock campaign many more zoos and aquariums will commit to holding and breeding many more threatened species of turtle and tortoise. It is only through the proper establishment of these 'Turtle Arks' that many species on the edge of extinction will be saved.

Mission Target Three – Fundraising

For species where there is still a chance of saving them in the wild, Shellshock is raising money to support priority conservation initiatives in countries in which the animals range. The initial fundraising target for Shellshock is 150,000 Euros (£104,000) over the 12-month campaign period. The selection of priority projects for support has been done in consultation with the Turtle Conservation Fund and the Marine Turtle Research Group. Invitations were also sent out to all EAZA members to submit suggestions for turtle and tortoise conservation projects that would benefit from Shellshock support.

Vietnamese Flowerback Turtle

The Vietnamese Flowerback Turtle Cuora galbinifrons, one of the critically endangered 'Red Alert ' specoes that the Shellshock campaign will be fighting to save.
Photo by Roland Wirth

Money is being raised in participating zoos and aquariums through the sale of a range of Shellshock merchandise in their shops and on their websites, and through special Shellshock fundraising events during 2005. In recognition of the fundraising achievements of participating zoos and aquariums, Shellshock certificates will be awarded as fundraising targets are reached. A Shellshock Bronze certificate will be awarded to an institution that raises 2000 Euros, 5,000 Euros will secure a Silver certificate, 10,000 a Gold certificate and a Shellshock Platinum certificate will be awarded to an institution that raises 20,000 Euros.

There will also be a series of 'Shellshock Special Awards' to help promote participation in the campaign. The Special Awards will be presented at the end of the Shellshock campaign. They will be for: the most innovative and original education program or product; the best new turtle or tortoise exhibit or enclosure built during the campaign period; the most significant captive-breeding success during the campaign period; and the most innovative and imaginative fundraising scheme or event.

Although Shellshock is essentially a European Association of Zoos and Aquaria conservation initiative, it is hoped that the campaign will also be adopted by other regional zoo and aquarium associations around the world. Shellshock participation is already planned in zoos in Australia, Thailand, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong and China. The more momentum that Shellshock gathers the greater its global conservation impact will be.

Further details on the Shellshock campaign can be found on the EAZA website: The latter part of this article has been published elsewhere and is reproduced with the permission of Dr Anders Rhodin.

Testudo Volume Six Number Two 2005