Species for Sale: Freshwater Turtles
by Thomas Gomersall
Around 40 per cent of the world’s freshwater turtle species are known to be traded in Hong Kong, including 67 that are threatened (Sung & Fong, 2018; Sung, 2021). This includes species from mainland China such as the Chinese striped terrapin (Ocadia sinensis) (Karsen et al, 1998, p. 154), as well as [increasingly] species trafficked from elsewhere, such as the black spotted turtle (Geoclemys hamiltonii) from the Indian subcontinent (Ades et al, 2000; Shen, 2018). Some of the species traded are also taken directly from the wild in Hong Kong, such as the big headed terrapin (Platysternon megacephalum) (Karsen et al, 1998, p. 72).
Item on Sale:
There are three main uses for freshwater turtles in the wildlife trade, the first and largest of which is for food. Nearly all trade routes used to transport turtles for food end up in large cities in Southern China, including Hong Kong (Ades et al, 2000). For some species, Hong Kong is the second-biggest or even biggest market (Shen, 2018) and live turtles can easily be found on sale in wet markets.
The second use for turtles is for their shells in traditional Chinese medicine, particularly turtle jelly, which is a popular traditional medicine and dessert in Hong Kong and can be easily purchased in shops across the city (Sung, 2021; Ades et al, 2000). Soup made from the shell of the critically endangered golden coin turtle (Cuora trifasciata) is also believed to cure cancer (Sung, 2021).
Turtles are also used for the exotic pet trade, with one online pet forum in Hong Kong selling 14,360 individuals in three years (Sung & Fong, 2018). Rarer species tend to be sold for higher prices. A 2018 survey by the University of Hong Kong (HKU) found that at least three out of 11 aquarium shops in Mong Kok sold golden coin turtles at anywhere between HK$40,000 to HK$100,000 per animal (Kao, 2018). Imported turtles are often later released into the wild by pet owners who have grown tired of them or by Buddhists for mercy releases (Gong et al, 2009), with some species becoming well established in Hong Kong (Karsen et al, 1998, p. 76).
The international turtle trade is considered the biggest threat to freshwater turtles and has led to steep declines in the populations of many species (Cheung & Dudgeon, 2006), including ones that are listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and thus subject to trade regulations. While many of the species traded are farmed — which in theory reduces pressure on wild populations — in practice, most farms use wild turtles to establish their breeding stock. As the demand for turtles increases, this means more new farms taking more turtles from the wild. Additionally, wild-caught turtles are particularly sought after by pet enthusiasts in Hong Kong (Sung, 2021).
The trade has been just as devastating for turtles locally as well as globally. Large adults are rare at heavily hunted sites in Hong Kong (Sung et al, 2013) and the populations of several native species (especially the golden coin turtle) have declined by an estimated 90 to 99 per cent (Sung, 2021). Releasing non-native turtles into the wild has also led to native ones being outcompeted, such as the Reeves’ terrapin (Mauremys reevesii), which has declined significantly due to competition from the introduced red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) (Karsen et al, 1998, p. 73, p. 76).
Although the ecology of freshwater turtles is not fully understood, it is likely that their loss would have significant ecological effects, as some species play important roles in nutrient transfer between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems through feeding and defecating in both (Kao, 2018; Sung, 2021).
How can Hong Kong help?
Tackling the turtle trade in Hong Kong has historically been hampered by a lack of data on it or its effects (current or potential) on native turtles. Researchers from Lingnan University are working to address this through conducting long-term population and ecological studies of Hong Kong’s turtles, identifying important sites and habitats for protection and attempting to quantify the effects of invasive turtles on them (Sung et al, 2015; Lam et al, 2019). They have also set up infrared cameras along streams to detect hunters when they pass by and instantly send photos to researchers, who can then go to the site and remove turtle traps as quickly as possible (Sung, 2021).
A joint project by Lingnan and HKU is also underway to determine what proportion of turtles sold here are wild-caught. Similar to HKU’s research on the cockatoo trade, it involves collecting toenails from turtles in markets and analysing their carbon isotope ratios (13C/12C) to see whether they reflect a captive diet or a diet of their natural foodstuffs. If it is the latter, it indicates that the turtle was recently caught from the wild (Sung, 2021).
Despite these efforts however, turtle trapping continues in Hong Kong and very few hunters have been prosecuted (Malone & Watson, 2018). To prevent species like the golden coin turtle from going extinct in the wild within the next few years, the government should urgently increase patrols along streams and trap removals by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. Better enforcement is also needed of online wildlife markets, where much of the turtle trade happens nowadays. Civilians can also play a role by consulting experts and NGOs about what turtle species are endangered before buying one as a pet, as well as looking out for signs of turtle-hunting activity, such as felled trees and traps along streams. “If you see turtle traps, report them to the authorities,” says Dr Hei Yik Sung, an associate professor at the Science Unit of Lingnan University. “This will pressure the government to do more.”
· Ades, G., Banks, C.B., Buhlmann, K.A., Chan, B., Chang, H.C., Chen, T.H., Crow, P., Haupt, H., Kan, R., Lai, J.Y., Lau, M., Lin, H.C. and S. Haitao. 2000. Turtle Trade in Northeast Asia: Regional Summary (China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan). Asian Turtle Trade-Chelonian Research Monographs, no. 2: 52–54.
· Cheung, S.M. and Dudgeon, D. 2006. Quantifying the Asian turtle crisis: market surveys in Southern China, 2000–2003. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, vol. 16(7): 751pp.–770pp.
· Gong, S.P., Chow, A.T., Fong, J.J. and H.T. Shi. 2009. The chelonian trade in the largest pet market in China: scale, scope and impact on turtle conservation. Oryx, vol. 43(2): 213pp.–216pp.
· Kao, E., ‘Calls to protect endangered golden coin turtle, sold in Hong Kong pet shops for as much as HK$100,000’. South China Morning Post, 15 August 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/2159660/calls-protect-endangered-golden-coin-turtle-sold (Accessed: 25 February 2020).
· Karsen, S.J., Lau, M. and A. Bogadek. 1998. Hong Kong Amphibians and Reptiles: Second Edition. Provisional Urban Council, Hong Kong. 72pp., 73pp., 76pp., 154pp.
· Lam, I.P.Y., Sung, H.Y. and J.J. Fong. 2019. Developing quantitative PCR assays to detect threatened and invasive freshwater turtles in Hong Kong using environmental DNA. Conservation Genetics Resources, vol. 12: 293pp.–300pp.
· Malone, C. and Watson, I., ‘The insidious black market taking Hong Kong turtles to brink of extinction’. CNN, 28 December 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/12/27/asia/golden-coin-turtle-hong-kong-intl/index.html (Accessed: 11 June 2020).
· Shen, A., ‘Hong Kong is second largest market in the world for smuggled endangered black spotted turtles, report finds’. South China Morning Post, 28 May 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/2148169/hong-kong-second-largest-market-world-smuggled (Accessed: 25 February 2020).
· Sung, H.Y. (PhD), interviewed by Thomas Gomersall, 2021, Lingnan University.
· Sung, H.Y. and Fong, J.J. 2018. Assessing consumer trends and illegal activity by monitoring the online wildlife trade. Biological Conservation, vol. 227: 219pp.–225pp.
· Sung, H.Y., Karraker, N.E. and B.C.H. Hau. 2013. Demographic evidence of illegal harvesting of an endangered Asian turtle. Conservation Biology, vol. 27 (6): 1421pp.–1428pp.
· Sung, H.Y., Hau, B.C.H. and N.E. Karraker. 2015. Spatial ecology of endangered big-headed turtles (Platysternon megacephalum): Implications of its vulnerability to illegal trapping. The Journal of Wildlife Management, vol. 79 (4): 537pp.–543pp.