Turtles and Tortoises: A Focus of CoP16

*** Update: Read about the outcomes of our proposals at CoP16.

Freshwater turtles and tortoises are a diverse and important component of the world’s biodiversity and have existed for over 300 million years, since the time of dinosaurs. Currently, there are over 300 species worldwide. Freshwater turtles play an extremely important role in maintaining functional freshwater ecosystems, including rivers, ponds, streams, and wetlands. They help disperse seeds, limit the overgrowth of vegetation, control insect and snail populations, and help keep water clean.

Threats to Turtles


Diamondback Terrapin, Credit: Todd Pierson CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Turtles are in serious trouble around the world. Increasingly, freshwater turtles are in danger, with over half of the world’s species threatened with extinction. Tortoises and freshwater turtles are the most threatened of any major group of terrestrial vertebrates – more than mammals, birds, or amphibians. They are being collected, traded, and utilized in overwhelming numbers. They are used for food, pets, and traditional medicine.  Eggs, juveniles, adults, and body parts are all exploited indiscriminately with little regard for sustainability.

Biological characteristics such as late maturity, limited annual egg production, and high juvenile and egg mortality make turtles particularly vulnerable to overexploitation. Human exploitation of adults leads to too few eggs being laid to survive to maturity. Likewise, human exploitation of eggs leads to too few hatching to survive to maturity. Such exploitation leads to population collapse. Turtles are also threatened due to habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation in addition to introduced invasive species, environmental pollution, and disease.

The global commerce in turtles in the last 20+ years has followed a well-known pattern of boom-and-bust in the international wildlife trade – once a species is depleted or regulated, the trade often shifts to other species which are not as threatened in the wild or are less regulated . International trade in turtles is most common in Asia, with supplier countries feeding well-established legal and illegal trade networks supplying markets in East Asia, principally, but not exclusively, in China.  In Asia, turtles are used principally as food and in traditional medicines, although a growing pet trade across the region and in other parts of the world is increasingly impacting a number of threatened species.

The United States has put forward a total of eight proposals for freshwater turtles and tortoises for consideration at CoP16. If adopted, these proposals will provide increased protection which will help prevent the successive depletion of these turtles, species by species.

Asian Turtle Proposals

In order to conserve and protect turtle species in Asia, the United States has joined with China and Viet Nam to propose increased CITES protection for a number of Asian softshell and hardshell turtle species.  These proposals include new additions to the Appendices, as well as “uplisting” species from Appendix II to Appendix I.   Five proposals submitted to CoP16 include species in three Asian turtle families (41 hardshell and softshell species) as well as two additional Asian hardshell species.

  • Burmese star tortoise (Geochelone platynota): proposal to transfer the species from Appendix II to Appendix I. Read the proposal pdf.
  • Big-headed turtle (family Platysternidae): proposal to transfer from Appendix II to Appendix I (this proposal is being co-sponsored by Viet Nam). Read the proposal pdf.
  • Asian pond and river turtles: proposal to include the family Geoemydidae, excluding the genus Rhinoclemmys (nine species), and 11 additional species:  the Caspian turtle (Mauremys caspica), the Spanish pond turtle (M. leprosa), the stripe-necked terrapin (M. rivulata), the Chinese pond turtle (M. reevesii), the Chinese stripe-necked turtle (M. sinensis), the Chinese broad-headed pond turtle (M. megalocephala),the Fujian pond turtle (M. iversoni), the Pritchard’s pond turtle (M. pritchardi), the Guangxi stripe necked turtle (Ocadia glyphistoma), the Philippen's striped turtle (Ocadia philippeni), and the Chinese false-eyed turtle (Sacalia pseudocellata), in Appendix II (this proposal is being co-sponsored by China). Read the proposal pdf.
  • Asian softshell turtles: proposal to include all Asian species in the family Trionychidae, excluding the Chinese softshell turtle (Pelodiscus sinensis) and the Euphrates softshell turtle (Rafetus euphraticus), in Appendix II (this proposal is being co-sponsored by China). Read the proposal pdf.
  • Roti Island snake-necked turtle (Chelodina mccordi): proposal to transfer the species from Appendix II to Appendix I. Read the proposal pdf.


U.S. Native Turtle Proposals

The United States is proposing three species of North American pond turtles for inclusion on Appendix II and is also considering the preparation of an Appendix III listing for additional North American turtles which are either traded or facing increased international trade pressure from Asian food and medicinal markets.  We will continue to work with State and other partners to advance the conservation and trade management of these species.


Additional Information