Swimming in two plastic boxes in a brightly lit and sterile quarantine room at the Rhode Island Zoo, the 16 quarter-sized baby turtles represent a growing concern for conservationist Lou Perrotti.
These eastern musk turtles, known for spending most of their lives in swamps and ponds and emitting a foul odor when threatened, were recently confiscated in a wildlife bust. Although the reptiles are common, their illegal sale on the Internet concerns Perrotti, who directs conservation programs at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence.
“We are seeing an increase in turtle poaching,” he said. “The places where we see thousands of turtles leave the United States every year are becoming cruel. … Turtle populations can’t take a hit like this with this much removal from the wild.”
Wildlife trade experts believe that poaching, fueled by growing demand for pets in the United States, Asia and Europe, is contributing to the global decline of rare freshwater turtle and tortoise species. A study found that more than half of the 360 living species of turtles and tortoises are threatened with extinction.
Such concerns prompted dozens of proposals to increase protection for freshwater turtles at the 184-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting in Panama from November 14 to 25.
Exact numbers on the turtle trade, especially the illegal trade, can be hard to come by. Based on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data, University of Michigan doctoral student Tara Easter, who studies the trade, estimated that U.S. commercial exports of mud turtles increased from 1,844 in 1999 to about 40,000 in 2017, and musk turtles from 8,254. In 1999, there were more than 281,000 in 2016.
In CITES’ proposal to ban or restrict the commercial trade of more than 20 species of mud turtles, the United States and several Latin American countries cited data from Mexico that found nearly 20,000 were seized from Mexico from 2010 to 2022, mostly at the Mexico City airport. they did
Among the world’s most trafficked animals, freshwater turtles are targeted by criminal networks that contact buyers on the Internet and then transport the reptiles to black markets in Hong Kong and other Asian cities. From there, they are sold as pets, to collectors and for commercial breeding, food and traditional medicine. In many countries, trade is poorly regulated or not regulated at all.
The lucrative business — some turtle species coveted for their colorful shells or strange looks can fetch thousands of dollars in Asia — adds to the threats the turtles already face. These include climate change, habitat destruction, road deaths and predators that eat their eggs.
Experts say poachers are particularly problematic because they target rare species and mature breeding females. Many turtle species that can live for several decades do not reach reproductive maturity for a decade or more.
“The loss of large numbers of adults, especially females, can send turtles into a spiraling decline from which they cannot recover,” said Dave Collins, director of North American turtle conservation for the Turtle Survival Alliance. “Turtles have a very low reproductive rate, producing only a few eggs each year.”
United States Assn. Reptile Keepers, which advocates responsible private ownership and trade of reptiles and amphibians, said in a statement that “preventing the decline of wild populations by restricting captive breeding and legal trade is counterproductive.”
“If we don’t have enough species on Earth … the solution is to create more of them,” said Daniel Parker, media director for the group’s Florida division. “By cracking down on audacity and trade, authorities are missing out on free-market protection solutions that could be effective.”
Since 2018, the Collaborative to Combat Illegal Trade in Turtles, a group of mostly state, federal and tribal biologists fighting North American turtle poaching, has documented at least 30 major poaching incidents in 15 states. Some contained several dozen, others several thousands of turtles.
Easter at the University of Michigan identified 59 U.S. cases involving about 30,000 illegally traded turtles over the past 20 years.
Earlier this year, a federal judge in North Carolina sentenced a man to 18 months in prison and a $25,000 fine for trading turtles in violation of the Lacey Act. The law prohibits the trade in fish, wildlife or plants that are illegally caught, kept, transported or sold.
The man traded 722 eastern box turtles, North Carolina’s state reptile, as well as 122 spotted turtles and three tree turtles through an intermediary for Asian markets. A man paid more than $120,000 for turtles worth $1.5 million in Asia.
In 2021, a Chinese national was sentenced to 38 months in prison and fined $10,000 for money laundering after previously pleading guilty to financing a nationwide smuggling ring that shipped 1,500 turtles worth more than $2.2 million from the United States to China.
Adam bought the turtles through PayPal from American buyers who advertised on social media and reptile websites and sold them to Hong Kong reptile markets.
In 2020, a New Jersey man was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay $350,000 in restitution and fines for smuggling 1,000 three-toed and western box turtles from Oklahoma into New Jersey in candy containers and socks.
The illegal trade prompted governments to propose listing 42 turtle species under CITES for the first time, including the North American musk turtle. Although some species, such as the eastern musk turtle, are common, the listing means traders will need a permit to sell them internationally. Commercial sales of other species, such as alligator snapping turtles found in the US Gulf states and weighing up to 200 pounds, will be limited.
The proposals would also tighten rules on 13 others listed for protection.
“We think this is really important because of the trends we’ve seen in the international trade in reptiles, and turtles in particular, over the last few decades,” said Matthew Strickler of the US Department of the Interior, who will lead the American delegation. CITES.
“There is strong demand for food and pet trade from Southeast Asia, but also for pets from Europe,” he said. “We saw that turtles were depleted in one place, and then poachers, traffickers and traders moved to another place. Southeast Asia is exhausted. They moved to Africa. Now we see them moving to America.”
The baby musk turtles were put up for sale online by a Rhode Island Environmental Police intern. They were only $20 each. The turtles, which grow up to five inches and live for decades, are brown or black with a white or yellow line along their heads.
The police arrested the seller in September after conducting an undercover buy at his home. The seller was fined $1,600 for keeping a reptile without a permit. The hope is that the turtles currently in quarantine at the Providence Zoo are unharmed and disease-free and can be released back into the wild.
“Obviously when you’re talking about removing native species even for pets, it has a huge impact,” said environmental police detective Harold Guise, who led the case. “The commercialization of wildlife has impacts on wildlife that we cannot measure until it has already happened. We have to go ahead with these things.”
For Perrotti, the director of conservation, it was a reminder that the illegal trade that once focused on Asia is increasingly happening in his backyard.
“I couldn’t believe there was a market for it and that someone was either mass-producing it or mass-assembling it to make a few bucks,” he said. “A $20 turtleneck. This is ridiculous. … Wildlife is not a commodity for anyone to profit from.”