By Jim Breheny
This summer marked the sad and untimely death of the most famous tortoise in the world, Lonesome George. When speaking of turtles and tortoises time, of course, is a relative thing. At an estimated 100 years of age, this Galapagos native was still relatively young by the standards of his genus. Nevertheless, with his demise on June 24, the Pinta Island tortoise is believed to have officially gone extinct.
George and his fellow Pinta Island tortoises fell victim to centuries of relentless exploitation and callous interference by humans into the fantastically-adapted seascape so wonderfully documented by the great naturalist Charles Darwin nearly 200 years ago. Mariners removed giant tortoises from the islands to serve as food on long voyages while introduced goats thrived in the Galapagos on the vegetation that previously sustained tortoises like George.
Sadly, George’s story is not unique. The armored shells of turtles and tortoises represent one of the most uniquely adapted vertebrate body plans and have served to protect these animals since prehistoric times. But evolution’s best defense mechanisms provide little protection against humankind’s willful determination to slaughter these incredible creatures. In our modern globally-integrated economy, turtle hunting will never be a sustainable industry. Turtles neither mature fast enough nor produce enough offspring to withstand even moderate levels of continual harvesting.
For decades, Wildlife Conservation Society scientists like the late John Behler and Brian Horne have crisscrossed the globe to study rare turtles and tortoises and prevent their demise. Dr. Horne, like other experts in the field, believes that the international trade of wild-caught turtles is the main factor in driving more than half of the 330 species of turtles close to extinction. On a percentage basis, turtles as a group are now more at risk of extinction than birds, mammals, or amphibians.
Far too often, we find a greater number and diversity of turtles in markets (typically stacked in crowded crates, sitting in their own filth in seedy shops and back alleyways) than we do in the wild. The rise of Internet commerce as a major market for the illicit sale of protected turtle species and the rapidly emerging economies of South and Southeast Asia are endangering the world’s turtles at an unprecedented rate.
The bulk of the world’s wild-caught turtle trade is to serve the demand in China for human consumption and their perceived medicinal benefits, and to supply the international exotic pet trade. The scope of this trade is not measured in numbers of individuals but in tons of live turtles that are collected and sold on a daily basis. During a three-day survey of southern Chinese markets in late 2011, WCS was able to document that the species for sale represented over a third of the world’s turtle diversity. Confronted by the magnitude of the trade, it is hard to imagine there can be a single turtle or tortoise left in the wild at current rates of exploitation.
The impact of these markets is truly global, as we found turtles from every continent where they occur and many that are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the highest level of trade protection, regulating commercial trade of a species. Loopholes in laws and failures in enforcement facilitate the trade of huge numbers of these critically endangered species.
In 2011, the Turtle Conservation Coalition identified the 25 most endangered turtles, two-thirds of these being found only in Asia and heavily impacted by trade in and to China. Most of these rarest species are estimated to have fewer than 1,000 animals remaining in the wild, with some species able to be counted in the tens or single digits. However, WCS believes that turtle species can be saved from extinction through field conservation efforts and captive breeding.
With the goal of preserving wild turtle populations and preventing further extinctions, we have made an institutional commitment to reduce the illegal trade in these animals. As a part of this effort, we will work to ensure that there are adequate protected areas for maintaining self-sustaining populations of the world’s most endangered turtles.
With our partners the Turtle Survival Alliance, the Turtle Conservancy, and the Asian Turtle Program, we are also developing captive breeding projects both within the US and abroad. The end goal of these breeding programs is to be able to return offspring of these assurance colonies into the wild.
For turtle species numbering in the hundreds or less, we may only have a few years before we lose these marvels of evolution forever. We have the ability to make a difference, and we have the ethical responsibility to respond. We must act now to ensure that future generations have the opportunity to spot a turtle in the wild and that no species finds itself — like George — reduced by human greed or mismanagement to one last, lonesome representative.
Jim Breheny is Executive Vice President & General Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Zoos and Aquarium and Jonathan Little Cohen Director of the Bronx Zoo.