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Box Turtles Being “Wiped Out” by Illegal Exports From Indonesia, Study Finds


TRAFFIC photo by Chris R Shepherd

Unregulated trade — at 10 to 100 times legal levels — has caused Southeast Asian Box Turtles almost to vanish from parts of Indonesia, where once they were common, according to a report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

“The turtles are used for meat and in traditional Chinese medicine, with major markets in Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Malaysia, mostly supplied from Indonesia. Animals are also exported as pets, mainly to the U.S., Europe and Japan,” TRAFFIC said in a news release.

The Southeast Asian Box Turtle (Cuora amboinensis) is one of 29 freshwater turtles native to Indonesia. It has a low reproductive rate, making it susceptible to over-harvesting. The species is listed by IUCN as vulnerable to extinction.

The TRAFFIC study found at least 18 traders operating in the Indonesian provinces Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra and Kalimantan dealing illegally in Southeast Asian Box Turtles.

“Each trader handled an average of just under 2,230 turtles a week, adding up to a combined total of 2.1 million Southeast Asian Box Turtles per year. The vast majority is destined for export, although Indonesia’s official annual export quota for this species is just 18,000 turtles — a figure set without a scientific basis,” according to TRAFFIC.

“The number of Southeast Asian Box Turtles currently traded is certainly ten times the official export quota, and probably nearer 100 times,” said Sabine Schoppe, author of the report.


Thirteen of the 18 traders investigated were registered for some trade in reptiles, but not in box turtles, according to the investigation. Traders are required to register with the provincial offices of the Indonesian government’s Directorate General of Forest Protection and Nature Conservation (PHKA), which is supposed to inspect such businesses regularly, TRAFFIC said. The results of the study have been presented to PHKA.

“Collectors in Riau and Sulawesi reported huge falls in Southeast Asian Box Turtle numbers in the wild, and registered pet traders said they had experienced difficulties in obtaining turtles compared to a decade ago,” TRAFFIC said.

“The current level of illegal exploitation will result in Southeast Asian Box Turtles being systematically wiped out across Indonesia, indications of which are already obvious at collection and trade centers, ” Schoppe said. 

Juvenile Southeast Asian Box Turtles and Black Marsh Turtles, South Kalimantan, Indonesia

Sabine Schoppe/TRAFFIC 

In 2000 the Southeast Asian Box Turtle was listed in Appendix II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), a measure intended to regulate its international trade. However, the study found that following CITES-listing, trade in the box turtles had increased, with the largest numbers being smuggled through the ports of Makassar, Medan, Pekanbaru, Tembilahan and Banjarmasin.

“Authorities should concentrate on eradicating illegal trade, and in setting realistic limits on what numbers can safely be harvested,” said Chris R. Shepherd, senior programme Officer with TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

“Weak enforcement of existing laws is a key problem, caused through a combination of factors including non-inspection of shipments, falsification of CITES export permits, and lack of training amongst enforcement officers.”

The report recommends better training and more cooperation between Indonesian enforcement authorities and those in importing countries to tackle illegal wildlife trade, for example through initiatives like the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN), and research into populations of box turtles.