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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Trade in Turtles Threatens Species

Florida softshell turtle
More than 150,000 live Florida softshell turtles were exported in 2009, up from 20,000 in 2000 Photo credit: Vanessa Kauffman/USFWS

International demand for turtles has risen dramatically and has raised concern about the future of some turtle populations.

We recently proposed to add four native freshwater turtle species – the common snapping turtle, the Florida softshell turtle, the smooth softshell turtle and the spiny softshell turtle – to Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). That means that exporters will have to obtain a permit before shipping these turtles overseas, so we will be better able to monitor the species.


These species are not threatened with extinction, but we are worried that rising trade could create a threat.  For instance, about 3,100 live common snapping turtles were exported in 1990. More than 655,000 were exported in 2009.

In the following article from the winter 2013 issue of Fish & Wildlife News, Dr. Thomas Leuteritz and Bruce Weissgold of our International Affairs Program summarize the problems facing turtles. Proposals from the United States, China and Vietnam at the 16th Conference of Parties (CoP16) to CITES increased protection for 44 Asian freshwater turtles.


Tortoises and freshwater and terrestrial turtles are the world’s most endangered vertebrates, and the Service has been involved in CITES efforts to better monitor and regulate their international trade.

Global commerce in turtles in the last 20-plus years has followed a well-known pattern of boom and bust in international wildlife trade: Once a species is depleted or regulated, trade shifts to species not as threatened or less regulated.

International trade in turtles is most common in Asia, with supply countries feeding well-established legal and illegal trade networks supplying markets in China and other consumer countries in East Asia. Buyers in Asia primarily use turtles as food or in traditional medicine. But a growing pet trade across the region impacts a number of threatened species. Many freshwater turtles come from the United States—mostly from turtle farms.

Because of their life-history traits— including adult longevity, late maturity, limited annual reproductive output, and high juvenile and egg mortality—turtles are vulnerable to the effects of over­harvest. Their long lifespan creates a high probability that some hatchlings will survive to maturity, but this strategy may be overwhelmed by the impacts of human exploitation. Harvest of adults leads to too few eggs being laid and thus fewer hatchlings to survive to maturity. Human exploitation of eggs also leads to fewer hatching and again fewer hatchlings surviving to maturity. In this way over-harvest often leads to population collapse.

Golden coin turtles are primarily used in traditional medicine or kept live to bring good luck or as a financial investment. Photo credit: Peter Paul van Dijk

Along with other countries—including China, Germany, Indonesia and Vietnam— the United States has spearheaded efforts not only to list species in the cites Appendices but also to bring countries together to strengthen implementation and enforcement of cites. This international cooperation is vital to conserving tortoise and turtle species. Consider the plight of Asian box turtles.

Asian Cuora box turtles—about 10 to 12 species—have a history of local and international exploitation for food, traditional medicine and the pet trade. Originally, several of the species were only known from specimens found in Asian food markets.

The locations of wild populations, if any existed, were unknown. As discoveries were made regarding their ranges in the wild, many of these box turtle populations were found to have fewer than 100 individuals, and in some cases only a handful. Even today, the status of Zhou’s box turtle in the wild, with approximately 100 known living specimens in captivity,  is a mystery.

The golden coin turtle, also known as the three-striped box turtle, has long been used in China, primarily for traditional medicines. Live turtles are kept for good luck or as a financial investment, and turtle populations tolerated low-level collection for these uses for centuries. However, in the last three decades, demand has been fueled by the false belief that jellies and abstracts from this species cure cancer. High demand coupled with habitat loss has pushed this species to the edge of extinction. Despite farming of golden coin turtles by the thousands, demand for wild-caught males still exists because captive breeding seems to produce only females, and high demand encourages the construction of additional farms that require wild animals as breeding stock.

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