Taiwan has seized more than 2,500 protected turtles destined for Chinese banquet tables, the latest in the world’s attempts, legally or not, to satisfy China’s insatiable appetite. The reptiles have always been believed to hold a variety of medicinal and life-enhancing qualities, and a wealthier, more open China has created a global market for them.
The Taiwanese coast guard discovered 2,626 rare turtles, including 1,180 Asian yellow pond turtles and 1,446 yellow-lined box turtles, in a container aboard a ship that was to depart from Kaohsiung, a port in southern Taiwan, on Saturday, according to Agence France-Presse. A man was arrested, but the masterminds behind the smuggling have not been found.
“After consuming up their own turtles, now they [the Chinese] are turning their eyes to Southeast Asia and Taiwan,” said Lin Kuo-Chang, head of conservation affairs at Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture.
Years of overharvesting led to a sharp decline in wild turtle populations in China, driving up mainland prices to about five times of those in Taiwan. The two types of turtles are classified as “rare and valuable” in Taiwan’s three-category wildlife protection list, just one step away from “endangered,” according to AFP.
As early as 2007, Time magazine reported that China was importing large quantities of turtles from the United States, having already cleared out the supply from some Southeast Asian countries.
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"We have seen the Chinese trade vacuum out one region after another — Burma, Vietnam, Borneo, Java, then Sumatra," says Peter Paul van Dijk, director of the tortoise and freshwater turtle biodiversity program at Virginia-based Conservation International.
The turtle trade in each of the countries followed a three- to five-year boom and bust cycle, according to van Dijk, and 75 percent of Asia’s 90 species of tortoise and freshwater turtles were threatened by 2007. Worldwide, 40 percent of turtle species are at immediate risk of extinction, according to Conservation International.
"Beginning with Vietnam in the early '90s, China's demand of turtles has caused the Asian Turtle Crisis," Ross Kiester, Ph.D., chief scientist for the Turtle Conservancy, a non-profit dedicated to the conservation of turtles based in New York, told the International Business Times. "And the problem is, as many species are considered common, no one is paying any attention to the turtles."
After years of unregulated turtle harvesting, regulators are now concerned that turtles may be the new buffalo, once ubiquitous but now rarely seen due to aggressive harvesting, Time reported.
In the U.S., some turtle-rich states are trying to put a stop to overcomsumption. Texas prohibited the collection of turtles in public waters and reservoirs in 2007. Florida passed a law in 2009 that effectively ended commercial wild-turtle harvests, and limited individuals to a “noncommercial use” of just one turtle a day for most of the state’s species, according to the National Geographic.
Around 31.8 million turtles, 97 percent farm-raised, were exported from the U.S. between 2002 and 2005, according to a study by the World Chelonian Trust, a foundation dedicated to the care and conservation of turtles. The number is a rough estimate, as even though customs officials at both ends monitor the shipments, accurate numbers and reliable records of which species are being exported are lacking, according to Time.