China’s Obsession With Pet Turtles Threatens a Rare Philippine Species With Extinction

Thousands of Palawan forest turtles have been stolen despite the best efforts to protect them in the wild.
(Photo: Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)
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Oct 15, 2015· 3 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The images were horrifying: thousands upon thousands of rare turtles crammed in a shipping container on Palawan Island in the Philippines, piled up on top of one another, struggling to survive.

All told, more than 4,400 turtles were found in the container, which was intercepted and confiscated by Philippine officials in June before it could be shipped to China.

More than 3,900 of those sick and dehydrated animals were of a critically endangered species called the Palawan forest turtle, an animal that people thought was extinct until just a few years ago. Scientists do not know how many of the turtles survive in the wild, but conservationists fear the animals found in the container represented the majority of them.

Like many other turtle species, the Palawan forest turtle’s rarity has put a high price tag on its head. Collectors in China and other countries will pay a lot of money to keep the reptiles as pets. That promise of a lucrative payday creates quite an incentive for too many people in Palawan’s poor communities to collect the turtles for Chinese buyers.

(An attempt to track down some of these turtle poachers appears on the premiere episode of The Operatives. Watch the all-new season of The Operatives starting Sunday, Oct. 18, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Pivot, the television network owned by Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company. Join the Operatives on their missions and take action to protect all wildlife by clicking here.)

“We’ve been seeing large numbers for sale, often in Hong Kong and Thailand,” said Rick Hudson, president of the Turtle Survival Alliance.

Those sightings were usually just of 10 or 20 turtles at a time. This summer’s rescue made all others pale in comparison.

Although many turtle species are also illegally collected and shipped to China as food, Hudson suspects the confiscated turtles were headed to one of China’s thousands of turtle farms in hopes of breeding the species in captivity for sale on the pet market.

Hudson said that won’t work for the Palawan forest turtle. Not only do the animals require specialized temperatures and diets that would have been hard to provide outside their natural habitat, but they’re also “a really, really challenging species to manage in captivity,” he said. “They just don’t like each other. Even under the best husbandry conditions, they fight like hell. If you keep them to one per enclosure, fine. But once you start putting them together, the wheels fall off.”

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The only reason the turtles rescued in June weren’t fighting was that they were sick, said John Sykes, a senior veterinarian with the Bronx Zoo, who traveled to the Philippines to help care for the animals. “The big fear was, if we have hundreds of turtles in an enclosed space in a rehab facility trying to make them better, as soon as they start feeling better they start attacking each other, and then we have other wounds to deal with,” he said.

That left the rescue team with one choice: As soon as the turtles were healthy enough, they were released back into the wild. “A lot were dehydrated,” Sykes reported. “Then they were treated and released early on. As the efforts continue, you’re left with sicker and sicker animals. There were many days where they would just bring you one turtle after the next after the next, all day long.”

The remaining turtles were suffering from the cramped conditions in which they had been kept. The pressure of so many turtles stacked on top of one another causes their shells to crack and develop abscesses. “A lot of what we wound up doing was cleaning those abscesses out so that they could heal,” Sykes said. “If you left them, the abscess could burst out inside the body, and then the turtle would die.”

The rescue effort paid off, with 90 percent surviving. As of earlier this month, only six turtles remained behind in a rehab facility.

Sykes said he’s thankful the turtles were confiscated and rescued before they got shipped out of the country. “It would have been a huge blow to the species and brought it much closer to extinction,” he said.

Eliminating the demand for these animals on the pet market will be the key to keeping the species from disappearing. “The Chinese influence in that part of the Philippines is really pervasive,” Hudson said. “As long as the Chinese are entrenched in the area the way they are, I don’t see this demand going down.”

Luckily, “there are a lot of villagers here who care and want to preserve their wildlife and their heritage,” Sykes said. Many of them are helping to guard the sites where the rescued turtles were released. But that still leaves many places unprotected.

Funding additional protective efforts could help until the demand decreases, said Pierre Fidenci, president of Endangered Species International, which has been working for several years to save the turtles. “We need to protect their habitats and create a community-involvement approach to conduct monitoring, patrols, and checkpoints at community-based protected areas,” he said. “In some cases, land acquisition is a viable option.”

He said managing and patrolling key habitats would probably cost less than $150,000 a year.

Where that money would come from is uncertain. June’s rescue effort cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and was funded by donations from hundreds of people. “We can’t keep doing that,” Hudson said. “We can’t keep pushing the crisis button.”

But right now, the only people with the money the Palawan forest turtles need for their survival are the same people willing to pay to steal them from the wild.