Searching for the elusive Zhou's box turtle

Zhou's box turtle (Cuora zhoui) is a species of Asian box turtle believed to be endemic to China. Also referred to as the black turtle or the black box turtle, all known distribution of this elusive species has been traced back to pet or food markets in Guangxi or Yunnan provinces. No specimens have ever been recorded in the wild.

The research team conducting interviews and surveys.

Data about the distribution of this reptile is anecdotal at best. No hard evidence has ever been put forth. It is speculated that this species has a very restricted distribution range within Guangxi or Yunnan provinces. While it is possible that there are still some wild populations waiting to be discovered, some scientists believe that the species is already extinct, meaning that the fate of this reptile is now dependent on individuals who have captured it. The majority of all known living Zhou’s box turtles are kept by private collectors, and the species is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. Protecting this unique reptile would not be possible without understanding the species’ distribution and ecology better. 

At Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Science (KIZ), Professor Rao Dingqi and his team have made substantial, long-term efforts in studying and conserving amphibians and reptiles. Their work on elusive creatures such as Zhou's box turtle requires intensive field surveys, the visiting of local markets and interviewing of forest users.

Funded by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), the KIZ project “Research for the Protection of Cuora zhoui in the Limestone Karst Areas of Yunnan and Guangxi Provinces” aims to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the population status of Zhou’s box turtles.

Since 2014, KIZ has been conducting research in the Wenshan and Honghe prefectures of Yunnan, and Huaping National Nature Reserve and Mao’er Nature Reserve in Guangxi Province. The team visited local forestry authorities and villagers to conduct interviews, inspect farmers’ markets and conduct field surveys in potential Zhou's box turtle habitats. Despite sizable efforts, there was no sign of the Zhou’s box turtles. Instead, information about other turtle species was gathered, including the Chinese soft-shell turtle (Pelodiscus sinensis), Chinese big-headed turtle (Platysternon megacephalum), and Asia leaf turtle (Cyclemys dentata).

During the research, the team also promoted among local communities the importance of conserving the Zhou’s box turtle, as well as other reptilian species. Information was shared about such species, why they need to be protected, and the risks and impacts involved in hunting them. Good relations have been established between research groups, local communities and local forestry bureaus, who are being urged to give more attention to endangered turtles. 

The evaluation of the distribution range, habitat preference and population status of the Zhou’s box turtle have been hindered by difficult terrain and the remoteness of survey areas. Most of the areas surveyed are inhabited by ethnic minorities, who struggle with poverty and poor education. Threats to wildlife here have always been serious, with issues such as deforestation and poaching standing out as particular obstacles. At the same time, forest management is heavily impacted by institutional deficiencies. There are no relevant laws, for example, to restrict hunting outside nature reserves, and poor law enforcement inside the reserves themselves.

The work of research groups has provided troubling evidence that Zhou’s box turtle could be even more endangered than previously thought, and that more efforts and resources are needed to increase investigation and raise awareness. Although some small-scale breeding programmes have already been established in China, Germany and the USA, the programmes are at too small of a scale to contribute to species conservation. More research is required to improve the efficiency and enlarge the scale of breeding programmes in the hope of restoring its population in the wild in the near future.

About CEPF

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank. CEPF's fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation.

CEPF provides grants to civil society organizations to help protect biodiversity hotspots - the planet’s most biologically rich but heavily threatened regions. In 2013, IUCN and CEPF launched a USD10.4 million, five-year investment for the conservation of globally important biodiversity in the ‘Indo-Burma Hotspot’ comprising Viet Nam, Lao PDR, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and parts of southern China. IUCN is leading CEPF’s Regional Implementation Team (RIT) in the Indo-Burma hotspot, working together with Myanmar Environment Rehabilitation-conservation Network (MERN) in Myanmar, and Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG) in China.

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