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Asian Turtle Crisis Meeting by Chuck Schaffer

The Hour of Last Resort

By Vic Morgan

I  recently was invited to attend the IUCN Asian Turtle Workshop, (ATW), at the Fort Worth Texas Zoo. The workshop was set up to develop conservation strategies through captive management. Representatives of 79 zoos and various institutions as well as 11 private turtle breeders attended it.  However, the oddity were the words conservation and captive management used in the same sentence. It has long been stated by zoos and conservationists',  that “captive breeding”, as a conservation tool was to be used only as a last resort. What I learned from the ATW is it is the hour of the last resort.

Empirical evidence of massive turtle collection for the China food market was presented in the form of films and staggering statistics complied by scientist. Biologists, bio-diversity specialists, taxonomists, conservationists, C.I.T.E.S., USFWS and a few private breeders brought information forth over a three-day period.

Here is my summation of the cause and effect of the so-called Asian Turtle crisis.

1. Chinese currency became convertible around 1989. 1. Trade routes established all over Asia for turtles, middle-men collection activities
2. A Chinese middle class wealth was established 2. Supply and demand, economic value for turtles,  did not exist prior to the 90’s
3. Regulations, C.I.T.E.S. signatory 3. Unable to enforce export restrictions.
4. C.I.T.E.S. regulations. {USFWS in the USA}. 4. Catch 22 type regulations unwillingness to respond to stated crisis.
5. China population 1.6 billion. 5. Unsustainable demand and consumption of turtles.

Try to imagine this, in 1996 Hong Kong imported (7,716,000) lbs.of turtles and in 1998 (13,500) tons of turtle. Take your average box turtle, weight it and do the math. Besides turtles being eaten they are also used for traditional Chinese medicine. One such turtle is the Cuora trifasciata, worth over 1K in Asia, so whole villages look for it nightly.

There are turtle farms in China and Thailand were they raise Pelodislus sinensis. This species matures fast reproducing in about 18 months. Ironically scientists believe they are being over collected for breeding stock in China. In Thailand they believe, Pelodislus sinensis, escapees will impact indigenous Thailand turtle populations. 

The international pet trade also has a measurable impact on turtle populations. Though small in the big picture, turtle survival may be the result of the destiny of some turtles in the pet trade. If all this wasn’t bad enough there is also habitat destruction from farming, logging and fires, not to mention nature’s predation and long maturity time. It looks bad for the turtle of Asia but we, as Americans should not hold the Chinese people in contempt. For it is their leaders that are visionless.

A wise Chinamen may respond to this statement looking up from a bowl of turtle soup and say, "Does the word bison mean anything to you?"


1. TRAFFIC, Peter Paul Van Dijk, Malaysia.

2. Catch 22 = convoluted rules. 

      a.) C.I.T.E.S. will not issue export permits for illegally imported turtles in the

   China food market. Bbrozoc J., Turtles in Crisis, Chicago Herpetological


b.) USFWS will not issue permits for endangered species to anyone who is          

            involved in commercial activity

3. The government will not consider zoo studbooks registration by private breeders as proof of legal pre-act ownership of animals that will be elevated from Appendix II to Appendix I in the future. Possibly making private breeders prove

their animals were pre-act after government confiscation.

*Proposed by Vic Morgan at the Asian Turtle Workshop 2001. 

Asian Turtle Crisis Meeting

by  Chuck SchafferChuck Schaffer
To say that Asian turtles are critically endangered would be a rash understatement. Over two thirds of extant Asian species are not just  threatened, but in imminent danger of extinction. This was the focus of the three-day, invitation only, conference at the Fort Worth Zoo attended by many of the world's zoo personnel, chelonian scientists, and a small group of captive breeders. I'm sure many more interested parties would have attended,  given the opportunity, to participate in an event with such a critical issue.

Many participants seemed to favor ex-situ captive propagation and  maintenance programs for species preservation. There is some thought that this may take pressure off of wild populations, but there is much  disagreement here. I  had the pleasure of attending (Vic was there too) a similar but smaller  open conference which was organized by Ray Ashton last September in Orlando.

It was titled, "The International Roundtable to Develop a Protocol on  Chelonian Relocation and Heritage Collections." This conference primarily targeted the scientific community, although attendance was not limited  and some zoos and private breeders were represented. It focused on both in-situ and ex-situ programs. The conference was divided into seven sections and  chaired as indicated below (* indicates not in attendance; underlined names are past or scheduled JHS speakers).

Ethical - Earl McCoy (USF) & Kristin Berry*
Genetic and Systematic - Peter Pritchard & Edward Louis*
Socioeconomic - Francisco Soberon Mobarak* & Pritpal Singh Soorae*
(Presented by Ray Ashton)
Environmental - Henry Mushinsky & Gerald Kuchling*
Diseases - Elliot Jacobson & Barbara Bonner
Intra-Inter specific - Antoine Cadi*, Ghislaine Guyot & David Morafka
Heritage Collections - Ray Ashton, Dave Collins, Kurt Buhlmann & David Lee
Dr. Pritchard spoke of the need for genetic/systematic/morphologic catalogs and studies.

Dr. Mushinsky concentrated on ecological conditions and changes.

Drs. Jacobson and Bonner elaborated on new and innovative
techniques for treating the ills of captive chelonians (and Dr. Jacobson showed an interesting slide show of turtle tattoos).

 Dr. Guyot covered relationships between and among chelonians. Dr. Morafka spoke eloquently on the Mexican conservation efforts to save the critically endangered BolsonTortoise.

 Ray Ashton dealt with studies needed and on captive breeding
for reserve populations of animals soon to be gone from the wild. Dr.Collins elaborated on species and programs in zoological parks.

 Dr. Buhlman spoke on public policies and programs.

 Dave Lee championed the private breeders as untapped wealth of knowledge.


Information from this meeting will be made available to the interested public upon completion.

Asian turtles are "harvested" in staggeringly large and completely
unsustainable numbers primarily for the Chinese food and traditional medicine markets with a small number going to zoos or to the pet trade. A fact worth noting and virtually ignored in the recent Audubon article "The Terrible Turtle Trade" is that a very small percentage of turtles "harvested" go to the pet trade and to zoos. Also of special note is that far fewer turtles survive the food or traditional medicine trade than do the pet trade. Ironically, some of these "pet trade" animals may be our last chance for some species. In last fall's Chelonian Roundtable in Orlando, Dr. Pritchard's keynote address was "TURTLES IN CAPTIVITY: ECOLOGICALLY DEAD OR THE ONLY HOPE FOR THE FUTURE". China, with its newfound hard currency and entrance to the international market is driving this slaughter. Chinese enforcement of CITES regulations is accomplished creatively and selectively. In order to serve the food and traditional medicine trade, many TONS or turtles are shipped to Chinese markets daily. Conservationists and captive breeders who regularly locate rare species in Chinese food markets (many not native to China) have great difficulty or are refused export documentation outright. It seems that Chinese authorities look the other way in the import trade, but view exports negatively. Chinese turtles have gone to market, so to speak, and those of  their neighboring countries are rapidly joining them in Chinese markets. It seems a shame that red-eared sliders, one of the few turtles they don't eat, aren't on the menu. Most chelonian species are in some kind of trouble. The species that survived the age of the dinosaurs will in all probability fail to survive the age of man. The defensive strategy of hiding in their shell doesn't help with humans. Florida is no stranger to this type of cheloniocide. Prehistoric man in Florida is believed to have driven the native giant tortoises, Geochelone crassiutata and the largest members of the box turtle family, Terrapene putnami to extinction. Some scientists estimate that
the gopher tortoise, Gopherus polyphemus, will be extinct within twenty five years. Man's development will be the culprit this time.

In addition to use as food and medicine, Chinese chelonians in the past gave their lives for divination. Tortoise plastrons, known as oracle bones were used as early as 1766 BC during the Shang Dynasty in plastromancy for fortune telling and actually contained the earliest known form of writing. It is somehow ironic that we may be writing now about the beginning of the end for turtles due by large to the people who invented both writing and captive breeding chelonians.

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