Reptile Robbery: Why Poachers Are Wiping Out Ontario’s Turtles

International pet collectors have devastated all eight turtle species in the Canadian province.

(Photo: Kevin Stohlgren/Flickr)

John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for Scientific American, Conservation, Lion, and other publications.

Ontario’s once plentiful turtles are rapidly disappearing as poachers grab the reptiles for sale on the international pet trade market.

Some turtle populations in the province have completely vanished over the past decade. “My turtles are gone,” Jacqueline Litzgus, a spotted turtle researcher, told the The Canadian Press last week.

Most of the turtles end up for sale in pet shops in Asia and Europe, even though international trade in many turtle species is illegal, said Eric Goode, founder and president of the Turtle Conservancy.

“I went to Tokyo in 2002 and did a survey looking for endangered turtles and other reptiles and animals,” he said. “I was shocked. North American turtles were in all the pet stores.”

Goode said he saw hundreds of endangered species, such as spotted turtles, wood turtles, box turtles, and snapping turtles, as well as “countless species of musk turtles and bog turtles.”

Since that time things have gotten even worse “because of the newfound wealth in Southeast Asia,” Goode said. “It’s remarkable how big this whole enterprise has become.”

Goode frequently sees spotted turtles for sale in markets in Jakarta, Indonesia, and has spoken to people in Hong Kong, where common box turtles can sell for $1,200 or more. There are no statistics on how many turtles are stolen from the wild for the illegal pet trade each year, but a recent report from the United Nations put the annual value of such environmental crimes at more than $200 billion.

Ontario is home to eight turtle species, two of which—the spotted turtle and the wood turtle—are classified by the Canadian government as endangered. The rest are considered threatened or of “special concern,” which grants them some level of protection in national parks. All eight species have wide ranges covering a handful of Canadian provinces and many U.S. states. Ontario represents the reptiles’ northernmost range.

The extended range of many of these species makes it easier for poachers and smugglers to circumvent local and international laws, Goode said. For instance, turtle species that may be protected in Ontario may not be protected in other provinces or states.

“A lot of what’s happening is laundering, or moving them around from one place to another where they are legal to sell,” Goode said. In addition, some regulations permit the sale of captive-bred turtles even if the species is endangered or otherwise protected. “If you move a turtle to a state where it’s more lax and you say it was captive-bred instead of wild-caught, you can circumvent the law.”

There is some good news, however. Last year the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species added three of the species found in Ontario—wood turtles, spotted turtles, and Blanding’s turtles—to its Appendix II, thus placing quotas on their cross-border trade.

Goode said that will particularly help spotted turtles. “They were going out of the country in huge numbers, because they’re gorgeous little turtles.”

Ontario’s laws and enforcement often leave turtles unprotected, though. Snapping turtles, for example, are listed as a species of special concern, but they can still be caught (and eaten) by anyone in the province with a fishing license. Environmental groups tried to get snapping-turtle hunting banned a few years ago, but the government decided to simply require people to report their catches instead.

Most of the turtle species reproduce very slowly—wood turtles, for example, do not start breeding until they are 17 years or older—making populations extremely vulnerable when even a few turtles are poached. They also play an important ecological role in their wetland habitats. As turtle researcher Litzgus told The Canadian Press, “by protecting them, we protect everything in that wetland.”

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