Senegal Flapshell Turtle (Cyclanorbis senegalensis) / Credit: Tomas Diagne
African and Middle Eastern Softshell Turtles

*** Update: Read about the outcome of our proposal.


CITES Proposal | Description | Habitat | Threats | Taxonomy | Additional Information

Softshell turtles (Family Trionychidae) have a nearly world-wide distribution with species found in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and North America. The six species proposed for CITES listing all occur in Africa and the Middle East. The distribution of each species varies, but collectively their distribution includes 37 African countries1 and 6 Middle Eastern countries.2

Softshell turtles are prized in the Asian trade because they are a preferred food source due to their highly valued gelatinous cartilage content (calipee, also found in sea turtles) and their rapid growth rates. China has a long history of national utilization of turtles and tortoises as reflected in many ancient pharmaceutical and medical books. Among the most significant demands is for traditional medicines; the whole body, shell, and calipee are used to treat weakness, vertigo, insomnia and other maladies. Chinese trade data shows a shift from net exporter to net importer; as one turtle species’ populations decline because of over-harvest or trade restrictions, another turtle species then becomes the substitute species. This demand has started to switch to include species from Africa and the United States.

To conserve and protect softshell turtles in general, and African and the Middle Eastern softshell turtles in particular, the United States believes it is necessary to take a broad, family-level approach to listing them under CITES, rather than a species-by-species approach. This rationale is founded on observations that turtles, over the last 15 years, especially in the Asian region, have continued to be under severe threat from over-exploitation driven by international trade.

CITES Proposal


African and Middle Eastern softshell turtles are not currently included in the CITES appendices. Eight African nations and the United States have submitted a proposal for consideration at CITES Cop17 that seeks to include six species of African and Middle Eastern softshell turtles (Family Trionychidae) in Appendix II of CITES due primarily to over-exploitation driven by international trade.

They are proposed for inclusion by Burkina Faso, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Liberia, Mauritania, Nigeria, Togo and the United States. If this proposal is adopted at CoP17, the majority of the world’s softshell turtles will have CITES protection.

Eight Asian softshell turtle species were included in CITES Appendix II at CoP16 in 2013, and two additional species were transferred to Appendix I at the same CoP. The genus Apalone (comprised of 3 species) has been included by the United States in Appendix III of CITES; this inclusion becomes effective on November 21, 2016. This will give all North American softshell turtles CITES protection.

Description


The distinguishing characteristic of softshell turtles is that their shells lack horny scutes and are instead covered with leathery skin. Their necks are long and retractable, and the legs are very paddle-like with three claws on each front foot. Many members of this family have long proboscis-like snouts.

African/Middle Eastern Trionychidae range in size from 40-50 centimeters (~15-19 inches) carapace length on the smaller end of the range (Rafetus euphraticus) to 120 cm (~47 inches) carapace length on the larger end of the range (Trionyx triunguis). Cycloderma and Cyclanorbis are medium-sized at around 60 cm (~23 inches) carapace length.

Species of this family are largely carnivorous, feeding on fish, aquatic snails, mussels, crab, shrimp, other water dwelling invertebrates, and amphibians.

Nile Softshell Turtle (Trionyx triunguis) / Credit: Javier Reina (Creative Commons License)

Habitat


All softshell turtles are highly aquatic and restricted to freshwater rivers and lakes at low to moderate altitudes; a few species occasionally venture into brackish or saline coastal waters. Most softshell turtles prefer slow-moving streams and rivers with muddy or sandy bottoms, but they can also be found in ponds, marshes, and lakes.

Threats


The primary threats to these species are:

• Overharvest for international trade;
• Habitat degradation and loss.

Softshell turtles are often locally consumed in Africa. However softshell turtles are particularly prized in the Asian aquaculture industry because of their rapid growth rates and because they are a preferred food source due to their highly valued gelatinous cartilage content (calipee).
Softshell turtles, like all turtles, are vulnerable to overexploitation because of key life history traits, including adult longevity, late maturity, limited annual reproductive output, and high juvenile/egg mortality. For turtles that survive into old age, there’s a high probability that at some time during the turtles’ long lifespan, some of their hatchlings will survive to maturity. Human harvest of adult turtles interferes with this strategy, since adults may not be able to lay enough eggs to ensure that some will survive. Human harvest of eggs exacerbates the problem and population collapse can be the ultimate result.

The two species that occur in the Middle East are often killed by fishermen because of perceived competition for fish resources.

In addition, with continued human-driven development and population growth, turtle populations around the world face pressure from habitat degradation and loss.

Taxonomy


Class:    Reptilia
Order:    Testudines
Family:   Trionychidae
Genus:   Cyclanorbis [2 species: C. elegans, C. senegalensis]
Genus:   Cycloderma [2 species: C. aubryi, C. frenatum]
Genus:   Trionyx [1 species: T. triunguis]
Genus:   Rafetus [1 species: R. euphraticus]

Additional Information


Read the proposal for consideration of African and the Middle Eastern Softshell Turtles at CoP17.

Read how the Service has extended CITES protections (through Appendix II listing) to four native freshwater turtles.


Footnotes

1. Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

2. Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey.