At the end of June, 52 of the world’s leading experts came together to assess the status of the world’s turtles and tortoises. What they concluded is unnerving.
Of the 360 turtle and tortoise species currently recognized, more than half of them (that is, 187 species) meet the criteria for “threatened with extinction” on International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. And just over a third of the species are in such a dismal state that they qualify for the Red List’s two most dire categories: endangered and critically endangered.
“Turtles and tortoises are one of the most threatened groups of animals that we know of,” says Craig Stanford, chair of Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group at the IUCN and lead author of the study. There’s simply no other group of animals of several hundred species where more than half of them are staring down extinction. “That’s just extraordinary,” Stanford says.
Myriad reasons exist for the decline of these armored animals. For one, it seems turtles and tortoises may be more susceptible to human disturbance because they are slow, plodding creatures—a trait that makes them particularly vulnerable to hunting and vehicle collisions as well as easy prey for invasive species, such as European red foxes, which are annihilating many of Australia’s turtle species. Their reproductive cycle also doesn’t do them any favors in this regard. While most turtle species produce large clutches of eggs, only a lucky few of their offspring survive to adulthood. It also takes them a long time to reach an age where they will successfully mate. So their population growth also tends to be slow going.
All that said, living long and slow has worked just fine for turtles and tortoises for hundreds of millions of years. They were here before the dinosaurs and have been scooching along ever since. The question now, though, is how long the order Testudines will be able to hack it on this rapidly changing planet.
To get a better sense of what threats turtle-kind is facing, let’s take a short trip around the globe.
With around 89 species, Asia is home to a staggering number of turtle and tortoise species. Just in the region where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers meet in India and Bangladesh, there are 41 species and another nine live nearby. This area holds the highest concentration of turtle biodiversity in the world. Unfortunately, Asia also boasts higher-than-average levels of turtle species threatened with extinction.
The exploitation of turtles and tortoises for food and use in traditional medicine are the biggest reasons behind these declines. “Right now, China is the largest consumer of turtles,” says Stanford. The critically endangered Chinese three-striped box turtle (Cuora trifasciata) has been particularly hard hit. Scientists don’t even have enough information on how many of the animals might be left to hazard a population estimate.
Recent decades have seen another huge problem pop up for Asia’s ancient reptiles—the rise of the exotic pet trade. For example, each year, poachers nab more than 55,000 Indian star tortoises from the scrublands of India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka so that they can be smuggled into China and Thailand as potential pets. The tortoises are popular because of their starburst-decorated shells—but 55,000! That’s more star tortoises than there are visible stars in the night sky.
Africa is also a big consumer of turtles, though there it’s about both subsistence and luxury. For whatever reason, Madagascar big-headed turtles have never really caught on for commercial exploitation, but local communities hunt the species for its meat and eggs. And this alone has driven the population down to fewer than 10,000 individuals, earning the species a critically endangered designation.
Habitat loss is the other leading cause of turtle decline in Africa, as illustrated by the tragic state of geometric tortoises on the very southwestern tip of the continent in South Africa. The tortoises require a specific assortment of plants found in a Mediterranean-like habitat, known as the renosterveld. Unfortunately, the renosterveld has seen intense development pressure over the last few decades, with much of the habitat being converted to agricultural use. More than 90 percent of the geometric tortoise’s former habitat has been destroyed, making it critically endangered and one of the rarest land tortoises left on earth.
Europe doesn’t make much of an appearance in the “State of the Turtles” paper, but it isn’t because the European Union is especially good at turtle conservation. It’s more to do with the fact that most of Europe is temperate in climate and has never really had a ton of turtle biodiversity to begin with. Even still, the European pond turtle has completely disappeared from much of Central Europe, thanks to overharvesting. And even with its native species mostly gone, Stanford says Europe is still a big player in the pet trade.
Economies and development levels vary greatly across the Western Hemisphere, but the threats facing turtles and tortoises everywhere on this side of the planet are surprisingly similar. The biggies are twofold: widespread loss and degradation of habitat as well as commercial collection to fuel the international pet and consumption trades.
Speaking to the latter, Stanford said all you have to do is look back to May of this year when Mexican authorities confiscated 15,000 live turtles destined for China—the largest such bust in history, he said. Among the species found in the crates were Mexican giant musk turtles (near threatened) and narrow-bridged musk turtles (near threatened).
As for habitat, the Dahl’s toad-headed turtle of Colombia has become critically endangered as its forested wetlands are cleared for cattle, stranding small pockets of turtles throughout their range and isolating them from each other. A similar fate has befallen the tiny bog turtles of the eastern United States, also critically endangered, which are becoming increasingly separated from each other. In this case, however, more cattle could actually help bog turtles, as the herbivores devour the woody shrubs that overtake the mucky habitats the little guys prefer.
Snapping Out of Shell Shock
While the above may feel like a tour de force of bad news, there actually are a few reasons for hope.
“The fact is that there are a few species on the brink of extinction,” says Stanford. (The Yangtze giant softshell turtle, which is down to less than a handful of individuals, comes to mind.) “But there are many more species that are very, very threatened, which can be saved either with captive breeding or by protecting their habitat, or some combination of the two.”
Stopping the international trade in turtles and tortoises would help as well. In 2018, all international commercial trade of the Indian star tortoise was prohibited. Similar action could be taken to ban the trade of other vulnerable species.
And remember those quirks of turtle biology that are laying them low? Well, they can help too. Turtles are built to last, which is why sailors used to flip them upside down and store them in their ships’ hulls as living larders that needed neither food nor water for months on end. An extremely cruel practice, for sure, but it speaks to how well most turtle and tortoise species survive in captivity—where conditions are much better than the belly of a pirate ship—and they’re often quite good at breeding there. So as long as there is some wild habitat to eventually return these shelled wonders to and as long as we address exploitative trade practices, breeding programs can help repopulate their wild environs.
Just look at the Española giant tortoise on the Galápagos Islands. Its population was down to 15 individuals in the 1960s and ’70s when scientists brought them into breeding facilities for a last-ditch attempt at saving the species. Now, there are more than 2,000 of these hulking tortoises scraping their scutes across the island.
In sum, the decision of whether we have a future full of turtles is entirely up to us.
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