China Is Pushing the Rare Pig-Nosed Turtle to Extinction

A new report finds that up to 2 million of the reptiles are illegally traded every year to make traditional medicine.

(Photo: Joachim S. Müller/Getty Images)

Oct 16, 2014· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Pig-nosed turtles have a face that only a mother could love, but that doesn’t stop hundreds of thousands of the rare reptiles from being illegally traded around the world every year. According to a new report from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, as many as 2 million pig-nosed turtle eggs are illegally collected from the wild each year so the reptiles can be grown in captivity and then sold as exotic pets or meat. Many are ground up for use in traditional medicine in China and Hong Kong.

Pig-nosed turtles, which are considered vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, are the sole remaining species in their taxonomic family. Native to northern Australia and the island of New Guinea, the turtles have large nostrils at the end of their fleshy snout, the origin of their name. They are also the only freshwater turtle species to use flippers instead of feet.

Export and import of the species are heavily regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, but this hasn’t been enough to protect the animals, according to TRAFFIC. The sheer number of turtles rescued from smugglers illustrates the point: More than 11,000 newborn turtles were confiscated in Indonesia and Hong Kong in January alone.

The early months of the year pose the greatest threat to the turtles because they coincide with breeding season, the TRAFFIC report states. Full-grown pig-nosed turtles can reach nearly three feet across from nose to tail and weigh up to 44 pounds, making them hard to smuggle; newborn turtles, however, are just an inch or two across. Smugglers take advantage of this and ship thousands of baby turtles at a time. The largest known shipment to date contained more than 12,000 turtles and was confiscated in 2009. TRAFFIC estimates that 18 percent of the turtles die during transit.

TRAFFIC’s investigation found that foreign traders pay Papuan villagers to collect eggs by the thousands from the island’s rivers and swamps. The eggs are then stored in hatcheries.

One informant told TRAFFIC that “five local traders in the area were incubating 3,000 to 5,000 eggs each.” Another told the organization his village collected 50,000 to 60,000 eggs every year. The traders pay as little as 11 cents for eggs and up to $1.33 for hatchlings, although sometimes they trade large numbers of turtles and eggs for “modern commodities” and provisions such as outboard boat motors and fuel (which in turn help villagers to collect more eggs). Prices go up as the turtles travel through several middlemen.

Eventually they reach mainland China, where they sell for $28 to $39. Buyers keep them as pets, eat them, or grind them into a powder for use in traditional Asian medicine. Hard-shell turtles are used in traditional Chinese medicine to “treat” conditions ranging from fever to skin blemishes and for “replenishing vital essence.” None of these treatments is supported by science.

All of this collection and trade is banned by international law and laws in each country where the turtles live, but local enforcement in Papua is almost nonexistent, TRAFFIC found.

“Urgent enforcement action in Papua province targeting middlemen operating in rural communities is needed,” TRAFFIC regional director Chris Shepherd said in a statement.

TRAFFIC is also calling for increased monitoring at ports in Indonesia and other countries, as well as community-awareness programs and economic initiatives to encourage villagers to stop collecting the eggs.

The most important step, according to the report's authors, is to find ways to reduce the numbers of consumers seeking out pig-nosed turtles.

“Without mitigation of the high demands of consumer nations,” they write, “illegal over-exploitation will continue to be a serious threat to this unique species.”