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June 18, 2019

Why don’t we weep for turtles? They are disappearing before our eyes

May 24, 2019
(terminator1/Getty Images)

Two historical events occurred last month that can be considered global tragedies. The first was the loss of the last known female Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle following an artificial insemination attempt. The second was the fire that devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

My social media feed covered both events in great detail. Numerous comparisons were made between the potential loss of a grand place of worship that can be restored or rebuilt and a species that took millions of years to evolve and, like Humpty Dumpty, cannot be put back together.

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Many of my fellow conservationists’ posts joined the backlash against the billionaires who donated hundreds of millions to Notre Dame’s restoration nearly overnight while the search for another female Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle that could save a species from extinction remains understaffed and underfunded.

Inevitably, the question would arise: Why don’t we see articles on front pages of online news feeds generating conservation money? Why don’t likes and shares translate into dollars for our work?

Turtles represent one of the older distinct evolutionary taxonomies and find themselves in drastic need for conservation. Over half of the roughly 350 turtle species are at risk of extinction, and sadly, each year more species become endangered. We have few success stories and the ones we have are likely to be conservation dependent for now and the foreseeable future (e.g., Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, the Burmese star tortoise and Galapagos tortoises).

I have struggled to think of any species of turtle that has not declined — or is not now declining — due to habitat loss, hunting or disease. The only species that seems to be expanding its range and having a high rate of population increase is the red-eared slider, farmed in the tens of millions annually. Many are sold as food in Asia, but a lot are sold as pets in Europe and the U.S., many eventually getting released into the wild. While they represent one of the worst invasive species, at least that reflects their resiliency to recover.

Another species, the diamondback terrapin, became severely depleted at the turn of the 19th century due to consumption for turtle soup. They were hunted heavily until their numbers became commercially extinct. With time and restrictions on hunting, the species has rebounded. Yet it remains highly vulnerable and its numbers have recently declined again due to drowning in recreational crab pots.

Turtles depend on the adults of the species surviving for decades and reproducing annually. There is no evidence of turtles experiencing menopause so females that are 100 years old can still lay eggs. Because studies have shown that small—as low as 4 percent—increases in annual adult mortality can cause the populations to go extinct, hunting of adult females represents a grave threat to wild populations despite the absence of significant predators.

The U.S. is a mass exporter of wild turtles to Asia. Dried turtle parts (boney shells and cartilage) are commodities shipped by the ton for the traditional medicine market. We legally ship wild adult snapping turtles and wild adult softshell turtles for human consumption. Our more colorful species are targets of organized poaching to supply the international luxury pet market.

We need people to have more intrinsic desire for turtles to remain wild and we need to translate ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ on social media into the political will for the protection of these species and the resulting conservation dollars. We have campaigns against the indiscriminate killing of sharks for their meat. It is long past the time to begin campaigning against selling and eating wild turtles.

If we can rally around the loss of a beautiful iconic cathedral that has been with us for centuries, surely we can do the same for turtles that have crawled across our planet since the late Triassic Period nearly 220 million years ago.

Horne is turtle coordinator for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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