Without concerted conservation action, many of the planet’s turtles and tortoises, iconic survivors from the Age of Dinosaurs, will become extinct within the next few decades. That’s according to a new report from the Turtle Conservation Coalition, a global alliance of conservation groups, including the IUCN Species Survival Commission's Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group (TFTSG), which names the world’s 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles.
“Turtles are in serious trouble. They are some of the world’s most endangered vertebrates, more than mammals, birds, or even highly endangered amphibians. Half of their species are threatened with extinction,” says Dr. Anders Rhodin, Chair of the TFTSG and one of the report’s co-editors. “They’re being unsustainably collected from the wild for food, perceived medicinal beliefs and pets while their habitats are being polluted, degraded and destroyed every day.”
Lonesome George, the last remaining Pinta Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdoni), one of Darwin’s famed Galápagos tortoises, tops the list. Close behind is the Red River Giant Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) of China and Vietnam, weighing over 100 kg with a shell over a meter long. With only three males and one female left in the world, the stakes have never been higher.
The report highlights that turtles in Asia have greatly suffered from decades of illegal and unsustainable trade, with 17 or the 25 most endangered turtles being found in Asia. Every tortoise and turtle species in Asia is being impacted in some manner by the international trade in turtles and turtle products, and laws and conventions in place to protect these animals are not being enforced effectively.
Scientists say that although turtles and tortoises have thrived for 220 million years, their armored shells no longer ensure their survival. “Shells work great against natural predators, but are no match against humans intent on consuming them,” says Dr. Peter Paul van Dijk, Deputy Chair of the TFTSG and a co-editor of the report.
In China the turtle trade is enormous, with millions of turtles being imported annually from all over Asia, Africa and North America to meet the huge demand. Most of China's native turtles are nearly extinct in the wild, with many of their species included on this list of most endangered turtles. Rapid growth of large-scale commercial turtle farming in China is beginning to meet some of the domestic demand, but wild turtle populations around the globe continue to be impacted by this unsustainable demand for meat and medicinal products.
The international pet trade has also devastated populations. Wealthy collectors will pay tens of thousands of dollars on the black market for endangered turtles and tortoises. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world anti-poaching laws are lax or poorly enforced, and international conventions such as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) are only partially effective in decreasing the trade. However, recently there have been hopeful signs of some improvement in this sector, particularly in Malaysia, where a few high-profile confiscations and arrests have been made.
Turtles and tortoises are often keystone species from which other animals and plants benefit. For example the Desert and Gopher Tortoises in North America, the Giant River Turtles in the Amazon basin of South America and Pig-nosed Turtles in Australia and New Guinea are part of the web of interacting and co-dependent species that constitute healthy functioning ecosystems. Without turtles and tortoises, those ecosystems and the critically important services to mankind and people’s livelihoods, would gradually suffer from the loss of biodiversity.
The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) has taken up the fight to save turtles, focusing on on-the-ground conservation action such as captive breeding. The group is committed to ‘Zero Turtle Extinctions’. "Turtles are disappearing fast and we are dealing with one of the most significant wildlife crises of our lifetime. This should be a wake-up call for all of us,” says Rick Hudson, President of the TSA and a co-editor of the report. “We are moving into crisis management mode and embarking on a challenge that is unprecedented in terms of risk if we don’t succeed. To win this battle, we must see increased investment from the international donor community combined with improved enforcement and well-resourced conservation programs."
Without concerted conservation action, many of the world’s turtles and tortoises will become extinct within the next few decades. It is now up to us to prevent the loss of these remarkable, unique jewels of evolution.
The Turtle Conservation Coalition is an informal alliance of the following organizations: IUCN SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, the Turtle Conservation Fund, the Turtle Survival Alliance, the Turtle Conservancy / Behler Chelonian Center, Chelonian Research Foundation, Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society, and San Diego Zoo Global
For further information contact:
Nicki Chadwick, Media Relations Officer, IUCN, t +41 22 999 0229, m +41 79 528 3486, e [email protected]