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  National Geographic 23 Mar 07
China's Turtle Farms Threaten Rare Species, Experts Say
Scott Norris

China's hunger for turtle meat, which has sparked a conservation crisis across Asia since the 1980s, is increasingly being met by farm-raised animals.

But the rapid expansion of commercial turtle farming is continuing to place China's native species at risk of extinction, some experts say. At the same time, continuing demand in China for wild turtles is now affecting species from other parts of the world, including the United States.

In a letter published in the February issue of the journal Conservation Biology, four turtle experts from China and the U.S. wrote that turtle farms are the number one purchasers of Chinese turtles captured in the wild.

"The captive breeding of turtles for profit is widespread in China," said co-author James Parham, of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. "The sheer scale of it dwarfs all previous predictions.

"Turtle farmers buy wild-caught turtles to improve their breeding stock," Parham explained. "There is a belief that wild turtles breed better in captivity than captive-born turtles."

Gains and Losses

Parham worked with Shi Haitao, of China's Hainan Normal University, to survey the extent of Chinese turtle farming and assess its impacts.

The biologists report that more than a thousand turtle farms valued at more than a billion U.S. dollars currently exist in the country.

Peter Paul van Dijk is a turtle conservation expert with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Conservation International, who was not involved with the new survey.

He said some farms are primarily illegal laundering operations that sell wild-caught turtles as "farm raised." Others, he said, "persist in attempts to be the first to mass-breed a particular [threatened] species. These are particularly damaging to wild populations."

Conservationists had hoped that commercial turtle breeding could help solve the crisis of over-harvesting, which has brought many Asian turtle species to the brink of extinction in the wild.

In part, van Dijk said, the practice has been beneficial. He recently surveyed four major Chinese turtle markets and found that the large majority of turtles came from farms.

"Wild-collected turtles--nearly all tropical Asian species--have reduced from 70 percent market share in 2000 to about 30 percent market share now in the visible trade in South China," he said.

Other factors may also have contributed to the change, such as improved import restrictions as well as the sobering fact that many Southeast Asian turtle populations are greatly depleted.

But at the same time, commercial breeding has placed significant new pressures on Chinese species, nearly all of which are threatened.

"Farming is a major additional impact on Chinese wild turtle populations but probably the savior for Southeast and South Asian turtles," van Dijk said. In China, he said, turtle farming "has the potential to place a premium value on the very last wild animals, which means it will be profitable and economically worthwhile for local collectors to go out and look for them."

Letter co-author Parham agreed, adding that "the demand for [breeding stock] is real. For some species, such as the coveted golden coin turtle, the desire for wild-caught males can be extremely high."

International Turtle Soup

As Chinese turtles become increasingly rare, Parham said, farmers have been turning to non-native species. Sliders and snapping turtles from the United States are a growing part of Asia's farming trade.

Commercial-scale harvest of wild turtles in the U.S. for export to China is a growing phenomenon, subject to only minimal regulations in many areas, he noted. "Some of these turtles inevitably escape into the wild, potentially spreading disease or competing with native Chinese species," Parham said.

Impacts are also expected at the other end of the supply chain.

The nonprofit World Chelonian Trust documented exports of more than 700,000 wild-caught U.S. turtles from 2003 to 2005. The majority went to Asian turtle farms and food markets.

China's appetite for turtle soup has already reduced populations of Maryland's state reptile, the diamondback terrapin.

The state legislature is now considering bills that would permanently ban commercial terrapin harvests. "This is definitely a growing trend, and we are very concerned about it," van Dijk said.

Parham also points to a more recent example from Texas. As reported in several newspapers, a local businessman has been recruiting assistants to help capture 300,000 wild turtles a year for export to Asia. Common snapping turtles and red-eared sliders--both relatively abundant species--are the primary targets.

But biologists worry that threatened species such as the alligator snapping turtle may inadvertently be affected.

Overall, Parham said, "instead of alleviated pressure [on wild populations], we're seeing the opposite pattern. "It seems that the tentacles of Chinese demand are still spreading outward, despite the fact that the captive breeding of Chinese turtles is still developing."

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