Trouble for the World's Turtles


Washington, DC - About half of the world's turtle species face possible extinction -- due in large part to a growing demand for turtles as a popular dining delicacy and a source of traditional medicines. Sixty of the world's leading experts on freshwater turtles reached that conclusion at a special gathering in Nevada this month.

The phenomenon described as a "turtle survival crisis" was the most urgent topic at a prestigious international conference held in Laughlin, Nev., August 13-15. The Powdermill IV conference (named after the site of their first gathering in Pennsylvania in 1980), also discussed freshwater turtle ecology, behavior, systematics and conservation. "We are on the brink of losing a group of animals that has managed to survive the upheavals of the last 200 million years, including the great extinction episode that eliminated the dinosaurs," said Dr. Russell Mittermeier, President of Conservation International and an expert on turtles.

"Turtles are apparently at comparable risk as the world's declining amphibians yet they have not received the same level of attention," said Dr. Jeffrey Lovich, spokesperson for the researchers, co-organizer of the workshop, and a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. "Nearly half of all known species of turtles are considered to be at risk," he said. "We have done a good job of educating the public about the plight of amphibians, but like them, reptiles such as turtles, need protection too," said Dr. Whit Gibbons of the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. "Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC) has begun to address this whole class of threatened animals. If turtles are to be saved, it will have to be through cooperative efforts, such as PARC."

"While many people are aware that sea turtles are endangered, few realize that many freshwater turtles and tortoises, several with very restricted geographic ranges, face an even more critical situation," said Dr. Peter Pritchard, Director of the Chelonian Research Institute and Vice Chairman of World Conservation Union (IUCN) Freshwater Turtle and Tortoise Specialist Group.

"Many giant tortoises on oceanic islands have already been driven to extinction over the last three centuries because of human exploitation. So far, freshwater turtles have come through this century with the documented extinction of just one subspecies -- a small mud turtle from Mexico. However, all sea turtles, most remaining tortoises, and many freshwater turtles are endangered or threatened and require urgent conservation action. Some 12 turtle species are considered critically endangered, facing a high risk of imminent extinction unless long-term population trends are reversed," said Dr. Anders Rhodin, Director of Chelonian Research Foundation and co-sponsor of the conference.

"Turtles are threatened in the United States as well. About 55 species of turtles, or approximately 20 percent of the world's total turtle diversity, are in the United States. Of these, 25 species (45 percent) require conservation action, and 21 species (38 percent) are protected, or are candidates for protection," said Lovich.

The turtle researchers found a striking contrast between the "declining amphibian phenomenon" and the "turtle survival crisis." The main causes of declines in amphibians are associated with ecological change. The turtle decline seems first and foremost to be driven by human consumption. The wealthy eat turtles as a luxury food item especially in Southeast Asia. In places like Madagascar and Mexico, they are eaten by the very poor, for subsistence. Some 50 percent of the total number of threatened turtles are at risk due to this type of exploitation.

The Southeast Asian trade is driven by an enormous and growing demand from China, where age-old traditions of consuming turtles for food and as medicine are growing dramatically with increased affluence and the recent convertibility of Chinese currency. Some of the most desired species fetch as much as $1,000 in Southeast Asian markets. Scientists often discover turtles that are rarely seen in the wild in open markets and restaurants.

"Although much of this is being done in the name of tradition, it now threatens the survival of a globally important group of animals. In light of the severity of the problem, this use of turtles should be stopped," said Mittermeier.

This trade has hit already depleted turtle populations in Southeast Asian countries particularly hard. China's own turtles are already decimated. Several Chinese species only discovered in the last two decades are possibly extinct due to high demand. Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia are exporting large numbers of turtles to China and this unsustainable trade now seems to be extending to other countries as well. Indeed, well over 7 million turtles of several species are exported every year from the United States, as pets or food products. Turtle species in the United States often receive little or no protection. In all, nearly 50 species of turtles worldwide are affected by this trade.

"Of particular concern are some of the large, slow-growing river turtles, with large females being among the most impacted," said Pritchard. "Many turtle species are unlikely survive the onslaught of human exploitation and habitat loss if current trends continue. As we enter the next millennium, there is a great risk that a number of turtles will become extinct, particularly in Southeast Asia."

The scientists called for the following measures to address the turtle survival crisis:

  • Existing conservation trade laws and regulations must be enforced to ensure thorough and ongoing monitoring of the turtle trade, including numbers of animals, origins, and destinations.
  • Dialogues should open among international scientists and policy makers with Chinese authorities and other exporting nations to encourage much more effective national trade controls.
  • U.S. regulatory agencies should substantially increase import and export regulations and enforcement related to the international trade of freshwater turtles. Non-governmental conservation organizations should develop turtle conservation strategies.
  • Captive breeding should be undertaken for some of the most endangered species, while the underlying problems that caused the declines are being addressed. Slide photographs are available upon request through USGS and The Chelonian Research Institute. Slide photographs are available upon request through USGS and The Chelonian Research Institute.

Spokespeople for Powdermill IV include:

Dr. Jeffrey Lovich, USGS
phone: (909)787-4719;
fax: (909)787-5696;

Dr. Peter Pritchard, The Chelonian Research Institute
fax: (407) 977-5242

Dr. Anders Rhodin, Chelonian Research Foundation
phone: (978)534-9440;

Dr. Whit Gibbons, Savannah River Ecology Lab (SREL)
phone: (803)725-2472;

Conservation International (CI) applies innovations in science, economics, policy and community participation to protect the Earth's richest regions of plant and animal diversity in the biodiversity hotspots, high-biodiversity wilderness areas and key marine ecosystems. With headquarters in Washington, D.C., CI works in more than 40 countries on four continents. For more information about CI, visit

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