Turtles Vanish in Black Hole: Soup Pots and Pans of China

Carol Kaesuk Yoon
The New York Times

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Note: This article illustrates one of the less obvious problems associated with the increasining internationalization of trade and the corresponding improvement in the financial situations of people in the lesser developed - but rapidly improving - nations such as China.

(The decline of wild turtles in Southeast Asia probably correlates fairly well with the increase of exports from China to the United States.)      

May 4, 1999

One of the world's great centers of turtle and tortoise diversity, Southeast Asia has long teemed with species found nowhere else in the world. But in recent years, researchers say, this biological treasure trove has become a gold mine for profiteers who have been gathering every turtle in sight for sale as food and medicinals in the turtle markets of China. 

Biologists say collectors have made such a clean sweep of turtles in countries like Vietnam and Laos that it can be impossible to find a single turtle even in ideal habitats in national parks and remote preserves. In the regions of Southeast Asia where turtles do persist, biologists say, they are fast disappearing to satisfy the huge, some say infinite, demand for turtles in China. Scientists have been reduced to looking for turtles in China's markets as they say an entire fauna is being bought, sold and eaten into oblivion. 

"Southeast Asia is being vacuumed of its turtles for China's food markets," said Dr. John Behler, chairman of the freshwater tortoise and turtle specialist group at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. "The China markets are a black hole for turtles." 

Dr. Behler, who is also a curator at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said even endangered species whose trade was forbidden by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a treaty administered by the United Nations, were showing up in China's markets headed for the soup pot and the frying pan. 

Dr. John Thorbjarnarson, coordinator of international reptile conservation programs at Wildlife Conservation Society, said: "Uncontrolled trade into China is the No. 1 threat. It's an immense problem." 

The severity of the problem has become starkly clear to biologists trying to study the turtles of this poorly known region. 

In Vietnam, for example, turtles had been reported as very common in the 1980's, even around cities like Hanoi, said Dr. Ross Kiester, a research scientist with the Federal Forest Service in Corvallis, Ore. But when he spent a month in 1996 searching Vietnam's national parks and remote preserves, "We found two individual turtles in the field," he said.

"They have some amazing national parks -- it's just that there were no turtles." 

The situation is little better in Laos. "The greatest density of turtles I've ever encountered was three turtles," said Bryan Stuart, a herpetologist at North Carolina State University who has been searching in Laos over the past year. "In a month's time, you might find less than a half-dozen turtles in the field." Researchers say they hear similar stories coming out of Cambodia and Thailand. 

Studies of actual export numbers corroborate the anecdotal evidence for large-scale exportation of these turtles. According to reports from Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring program, more than 240 tons of turtles, representing more than 200,000 individual turtles, were leaving Vietnam each year for sale in China in 1994. By 1996, two to four tons of turtles were being exported each day from Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

As a result, the easiest place to find these turtles today is in China's markets. In July 1997, Dr. William McCord, a veterinarian from Hopewell Junction, N.Y., who does research on turtles, made a videotape recording an estimated 10,000 turtles for sale during a visit to a wildlife market in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. Nearly all the species were from outside China. In any medium- to large-size city, researchers say they see turtles listed on restaurant menus, and sometimes they turn out to be very rare species. 

"It's a weird way to do field work," said Dr. Steven Platt, field herpetologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. "You figure you'll be out in the sticks looking for turtles, but you spend a lot of your time going to restaurants and markets to see what's there. You go and see all these turtles, species you've only read about in books, and you see them stacked in the markets waiting to be eaten." 

Even entirely unknown species turn up. Dr. McCord said he had discovered a dozen new species of turtles in Chinese markets, his most recently published finding being Mauremys pritchardi, discovered in the capital city of Yunnan province.

Researchers say such finds point to the possibility that species are being sold into extinction before scientists ever see them. 

The high value of wild-caught turtles has turned much of the rural populace of Southeast Asia into a kind of enormous net of collectors, making it almost impossible for researchers to see turtles first. For example, Dr. Platt said he considered himself lucky to have seen two Sulawesi Forest Turtles in the wild, a first for a Western biologist, though the species was readily available for sale. 

While there is a long tradition of using turtles for food and medicine in Asia, researchers say turtle exports from Southeast Asia into China skyrocketed in the 1990's after China's currency became easier to convert. Demand "exponentially increased," said Dr. Michael W. Klemens, a conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and director of its turtle recovery program. 

With many sea turtles and tortoises having been in trouble for years, Dr. Klemens said the current crisis with land turtles and tortoises in Southeast Asia was making chelonians, as the group as a whole is known, one of the vertebrate groups with the highest proportion of endangered species. 

In the marketplace, the price of a single turtle can range from a few dollars to more than a thousand. The three-striped box turtle, or Cuora trifasciata, from Vietnam has a reputation among the Chinese as a cure for cancer, and Dr. Kiester said a Vietnamese collector could sell one to a dealer for $1,200 -- about six times the average annual income. As a result, that turtle has become extremely rare. 

Even turtles that do not have the allure of being lifesaving medicinals are highly valued. For while turtle  eating in the United States remains very limited, in China, turtles are a valued part of the culture and cuisine. 

"It's a status symbol to serve turtle meat," Dr. Platt said. "It's not cheap." In addition, in China where medicinal and food uses are often one and the same, the Chinese are said to consume very specific turtle parts, like the blood or the ground-up shell as aphrodisiacs, promoters of longevity or cures for lethargy, lumbago and difficult childbirths. 

With turtles gone from many parts of Southeast Asia, researchers say dealers are now starting to look elsewhere. "First it was Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos," Dr. Behler said. "Now it's Myanmar and Indonesia. The tentacles of that octopus have spread all the way to North America." 

Indeed, the export of turtles from the United States has soared, said Craig Hoover, program officer for Traffic's North American office. By 1995, the United States was shipping out more than 84,000 map turtles, 23,000 snapping turtles and 38,000 softshell turtles each year -- increases of fivefold to fortyfold since 1990. 

"The vast majority of these increases can be explained by China's increased ability to purchase commodities from abroad," Mr. Hoover said. 

Biologists are becoming increasingly concerned that turtle populations in the United States cannot sustain such harvests, especially given the lack of regulation. 

"Unless they're listed on the Endangered Species Act, there's no Federal law protecting turtles," said Dr. Susan Lieberman, chief of the office of scientific authority for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington. State laws are spotty, she said. 

While most of the turtles sold in China are used for food or medicinals, some researchers are also concerned about the international pet trade, which has among its biggest buyers the United States, Europe and Japan. While researchers agree the pet trade is considerably smaller in volume than the trade in China's food markets, it is problematic for a variety of reasons, especially because it specifically targets rare species. But many biologists say if anything is going to save Southeast Asia's turtles from extinction, it will probably be the amateur enthusiasts who support the pet trade and are willing to breed these turtles and keep them alive. 

In the meantime, researchers, becoming ever more accustomed to empty ponds and rivers, are pinning their hopes on rumors of turtles lurking here and there and are trying to understand this disappearing fauna by shopping the markets and scanning the restaurant menus. 

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company 


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