Turtles in demand as pets, leading to a spike in poaching

Nov 9, 2022, 9:11 AM | Updated: 10:33 am
Lou Perrotti, the director of conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo, holds a musk turtle...

Lou Perrotti, the director of conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo, holds a musk turtle in quarantine after it was confiscated in a wildlife bust, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, in Providence, R.I. Scores of turtle species are under threat from poaching. The plight of turtles is expected to get plenty of attention at a wildlife trade conference in Panama in November. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Swimming in two plastic bins inside a brightly lit and sterile quarantine room at a Rhode Island zoo, 16 quarter-sized turtle hatchlings represent a growing worry for conservationist Lou Perrotti.

These eastern musk turtles, known for spending much of their lives in swamps and ponds and emitting a foul smell when threatened, were confiscated recently in a wildlife bust. And, though the reptiles are common, their illegal sale on the internet greatly concerns Perrotti, who directs conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence.

“We are seeing an uptick in turtle poaching,” he said. “It’s getting ruthless where we are seeing thousands of turtles leaving the United States on an annual basis. … Turtle populations cannot take that kind of a hit with that much removal coming out of the wild.”

Wildlife trade experts believe that poaching — driven by growing demand for pets in the U.S., Asia and Europe — is contributing to the global decline of rare freshwater turtle and tortoise species. One study found over half of the 360 living turtle and tortoise species are at risk of extinction.

Such concerns have prompted a dozen proposals to increase protection for freshwater turtles at the 184-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting in Panama Nov. 14 through Nov. 25.

Precise figures on the turtle trade, especially illegal trade, can be hard to find. Based on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data, Tara Easter, a University of Michigan doctoral candidate who studies the trade, estimated the commercial export trade for mud turtles in the United States increased from 1,844 in 1999 to nearly 40,000 in 2017 and musk turtles from 8,254 in 1999 to more than 281,000 in 2016.

In their CITES proposal to ban or limit the commercial trade in more than 20 mud turtles species, the United States and several Latin American countries cited data from Mexico that found nearly 20,000 were confiscated, mostly at the Mexico City airport, from 2010 to 2022.

Among the world’s most trafficked animals, freshwater turtles are targeted by criminal networks that connect with buyers on the internet then transport the reptiles to black markets in Hong Kong and other Asian cities. From there, they are sold as pets, to collectors and for commercial breeding, food and traditional medicine. In many countries, trade is poorly regulated or not regulated at all.

The lucrative business — some turtle species coveted for their colorful shells or strange appearance can fetch thousand of dollars in Asia — adds to threats turtles already face. Those include climate change, habitat destruction, road mortality and predators eating their eggs.

Poachers are particularly problematic, experts say, because they target rare species and adult breeding females. Many turtle species, which can live for several decades, don’t reach reproductive maturity for a decade or more.

“The loss of large numbers of adults, especially females, can send turtles into a spiraling decline from which they cannot recover,” said Dave Collins, director of North American turtle conservation for the Turtle Survival Alliance. “Turtles have extremely low reproduction levels, producing a few eggs every year.”

Since 2018, the Collaborative to Combat the Illegal Trade in Turtles — an organization of mostly state, federal and tribal biologists who combat poaching of North American turtles — has documented at least 30 major smuggling cases in 15 states. Some involved a few dozen turtles, others several thousand.

Easter at the University of Michigan identified 59 U.S. cases over the past 20 years involving about 30,000 illegally traded turtles.

Earlier this year, a federal judge in North Carolina sentenced a man to 18 months in prison and fined him $25,000 for trafficking turtles in violation of the Lacey Act. The law bans trafficking in fish, wildlife or plants that are illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold.

The man trafficked 722 eastern box turtles — the North Carolina state reptile — as well as 122 spotted turtles and three wood turtles through a middleman for markets in Asia. The man received more than $120,000 for the turtles, which have a value of $1.5 million in Asia.

In 2021, a Chinese national was sentenced to 38 months in prison and fined $10,000 for money laundering after previously pleading guilty to financing a nationwide smuggling ring that sent 1,500 turtles worth more than $2.2 million from the U.S. to China.

The man used PayPal to purchase the turtles from American buyers advertising them on social media and reptile websites and sold them to Hong Kong reptile markets.

In 2020, a New Jersey man was sentenced to two years probation and ordered to pay $350,000 in restitution and fines for smuggling 1,000 three-toed and western box turtles from Oklahoma to New Jersey in candy wrappers and socks.

The illegal trade has prompted governments to propose listing for the first time 42 turtles species under CITES — including North American musk turtles. Though some species like the eastern musk turtle are common, a listing means traders will need a permit to sell them internationally. Commercial sale of other species such as alligator snapping turtles, found in U.S. Gulf states and reaching up to 200 pounds, would be limited.

Proposals would also tighten regulations on 13 others already listed for protection.

“We think that’s really, really important just because of the trends that we’ve seen over the past couple of decades in international reptile and particularly turtle trade,” said U.S. Department of the Interior’s Matthew Strickler, who will head the American delegation at CITES.

“There’s significant demand from Southeast Asia for food and the pet trade, but also from Europe, for pets as well,” he said. “We’ve seen this pattern of turtles being depleted in one place, and then poachers and traffickers and traders moving to another place. Southeast Asia was depleted. They moved to Africa. Now, we see them moving to the Americas.”

The tiny musk turtles were spotted for sale online by a Rhode Island Environmental Police intern. They were only $20 each. The turtles, which grow to five inches (13 centimeters) and live for decades, are brown or black with a white or yellow line along their heads.

Police busted the seller in September after arranging an undercover buy at his house. The seller paid a $1,600 fine for possessing a reptile without a permit. The hope is that the turtles, now quarantined at the Providence zoo, are injury- and disease-free and can be released back to the wild.

“Obviously when we are talking about native species being removed even for pets, it has a big impact,” said Harold Guise, an environmental police detective who handled the case. “The commercialization of wildlife has an impact on wildlife that we can’t even measure until it has already happened. We need to get ahead of these things.”

For Perrotti the conservation director, it was a reminder that illegal trade once focused in Asia is increasingly happening in his backyard.

“I couldn’t believe there was a market for it and that someone was either mass producing these or mass collecting these to make a few bucks,” he said. “A $20 turtle. That’s ridiculous. … Wildlife is not a commodity for somebody to profit on.”

___

Follow Michael Casey in Twitter: @mcasey1

___

Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


              FILE - Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) make their way into the ocean upon their release at Kuta beach, Bali, Indonesia, Jan. 8, 2022. With the help of volunteers, Indonesian navy released thirty two green turtles which they seized from illegal poachers during a raid in the waters off the resort island December 2021. The plight of turtles is expected to get plenty of attention at a wildlife trade conference in Panama in November 2022. (AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati, File)
            
              FILE - A Malaysian Customs official holds seized tortoise after a news conference at Customs office in Sepang, Malaysia, Malaysia on May 15, 2017. Malaysian authorities say they seized 330 exotic tortoises from Madagascar. The plight of turtles is expected to get plenty of attention at a wildlife trade conference in Panama in November 2022. (AP Photo/Daniel Chan, File)
            
              A sign labeling a quarantine area for turtles hangs on a door as Lou Perrotti, the director of conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo, looks over the 16 quarter-sized turtle hatchlings that were confiscated in a wildlife bust, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, in Providence, R.I. Scores of turtle species are under threat from poaching. The plight of turtles is expected to get plenty of attention at a wildlife trade conference in Panama in November. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
            
              A musk turtle looks out from a tank while in quarantine at Roger Williams Park Zoo after 16 of the quarter-sized turtle hatchlings were confiscated in a wildlife bust, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, in Providence, R.I. Scores of turtle species are under threat from poaching. The plight of turtles is expected to get plenty of attention at a wildlife trade conference in Panama in November. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
            
              Lou Perrotti, left, the director of conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo, talks with Harold Guise, a Rhode Island Environmental Police detective, over a tank of musk turtles quarantined after they were confiscated in a wildlife bust involving Guise, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, in Providence, R.I. Scores of turtle species are under threat from poaching. The plight of turtles is expected to get plenty of attention at a wildlife trade conference in Panama in November. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

AP

FILE - Capital murder defendant and former U.S. Border Patrol Juan David Ortiz looks around the cou...
Associated Press

Jurors hear ex-Border Patrol agent’s confession in killings

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Jurors in the capital murder trial of a former U.S. Border Patrol agent have heard a taped interview in which he confesses to the 2018 killings of four sex workers in South Texas. If convicted of capital murder, Juan David Ortiz, 39, faces life in prison without parole because prosecutors are […]
18 hours ago
FILE - A Twitter logo hangs outside the company's San Francisco offices on Nov. 1, 2022. A top Euro...
Associated Press

As Musk is learning, content moderation is a messy job

Now that he’s back on Twitter, neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin wants somebody to explain the rules. Anglin, the founder of an infamous neo-Nazi website, was reinstated Thursday, one of many previously banned users to benefit from an amnesty granted by Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk. The next day, Musk banished Ye, the rapper formerly known as […]
18 hours ago
FILE - In this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by th...
Associated Press

Iran morality police status unclear after ‘closure’ comment

CAIRO (AP) — An Iranian lawmaker said Sunday that Iran’s government is “paying attention to the people’s real demands,” state media reported, a day after a top official suggested that the country’s morality police whose conduct helped trigger months of protests has been shut down. The role of the morality police, which enforces veiling laws, […]
18 hours ago
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the J Street National Conference at the Omni Shoreham H...
Associated Press

Blinken vows US support for Israel despite unease over gov’t

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday the U.S. will not shrink from its unwavering support for Israel despite stark differences with Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu and concerns the Biden administration may have about potential members of his incoming right-wing government. Speaking to a left-leaning group that some on the right accuse […]
18 hours ago
Associated Press

Farmer: Georgia dog injured saving sheep from coyote attack

DECATUR, Ga. (AP) — A Georgia sheepdog is recovering at home two days after killing a pack of coyotes that attacked his owner’s flock of sheep, farmer John Wierwiller said. Casper, a 20-month old Great Pyrenees from Decatur, fought off a pack of coyotes who were threatening Wierwiller’s sheep farm, he said. The fight lasted […]
18 hours ago
Associated Press

Report: Woman attacks 6 deputies at New Orleans airport

Officials say a woman bit, kicked and spat on six sheriff’s deputies while refusing to exit a plane at an airport in Louisiana early Thanksgiving Day, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported Saturday. Authorities said the 25-year-old woman attacked Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputies at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, according to local news reports. […]
18 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Prep the plumbing in your home just in time for the holidays

With the holidays approaching, it's important to know when your home is in need of heating and plumbing updates before more guests start to come around.
(Desert Institute for Spine Care photo)...
DESERT INSTITUTE FOR SPINE CARE

Why DISC is world renowned for back and neck pain treatments

Fifty percent of Americans and 90% of people at least 50 years old have some level of degenerative disc disease.
...
Children’s Cancer Network

Children’s Cancer Network celebrates cancer-fighting superheroes, raises funds during September’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Jace Hyduchak was like most other kids in his kindergarten class: He loved to play basketball, dress up like his favorite superheroes and jump as high as his pint-sized body would take him on his backyard trampoline.
Turtles in demand as pets, leading to a spike in poaching