Traffickers in Florida are shipping thousands of land and freshwater turtles from Florida to Asia.
In China, land turtles have proved popular as pets while some are being sold for human consumption in food markets. The pets can fetch up to $300 each.
But some turtles can sell for $10,000 at auctions held near Shanghai, according to a report from Kimberly Miller published in Florida by the Palm Beach Post.
Curtis Brown, the director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the main source for Miller's report, said that Florida has "one of the most densely populated areas in the world for turtle biodiversity, which makes us a target for illegal trafficking."
Turtles for export from the U.S. are obtained both from the wild and from commercial turtle breeding farms.
Nearly all species of sea turtles are now classified as endangered. They're killed not only for their meat but also for their eggs, skin, and shells.
Turtles are venerated by some Chinese as symbols of longevity, tenacity, and good fortune.
Many of the turtles are being shipped to China on commercial air flights. But China isn't the only destination for trafficked turtles.
Southeast Asia a destination for marine turtles
According to a study released in late November of 2019 by Traffic, a wildlife monitoring organization based in Cambridge in the UK, local authorities have seized thousands of marine turtles and their parts in markets located in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
The study of these sea turtles was commissioned by the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which has been agreed to by 182 countries.
Chinese doctors had spoken out several years ago against the practice of eating turtle meat. But it appears that despite a lack of scientific evidence, many Chinese still believe that turtle meat provides medicinal benefits.
According to one expert, turtles are sometimes consumed at private Chinese banquets.
Turtle eggs are considered to be an aphrodisiac in some Asian countries. And in China, the belief apparently persists that turtle meat maintains youthful beauty in women.
So it's perhaps not surprising that nearly all species of sea turtles are now considered endangered.
And according to the Swiss-based World Wildlife Fund (WWF), as of 2018, six out of the world's seven endangered or critically endangered marine turtle species could be found in the Asia-Pacific region.
International trafficking rings based in South and Southeast Asia are involved in the trade because they can gain huge profits from it.
Fishermen have profited by catching turtles in their nets as far away as the Indian Ocean off Kenya's coast.
Hawksbill turtles much in demand
The hawksbill trade began many years ago and has caused the deaths of millions of the turtles. They've been killed to make combs, frames for eyeglasses, and guitar picks, as well as ornaments and cheap jewelry.
The hawksbill turtle's tapered head ends in a sharp point resembling a bird's beak, hence its name.
According to the National Geographic, hawksbill turtles grow to about 45 inches in shell length and weigh roughly 150 pounds. They can live for 30 to 50 years.
Jason Daley, a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, and the environment, wrote in April of last year that the hawksbill sea turtle "just might be the most beautiful reptile in the ocean."
"It's known for the striking patterns that appear on its head and flippers, but is most prized for its multi-hued shell," said Daley in an article published by the Smithsonian Magazine.
That was one reason why the species was listed as "critically endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), he said.
The IUCN, based in Switzerland, has observer and consultative status at the United Nations and helps to implement several international agreements on nature conservation.
Daley cites a study done by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, who have been attempting to understand the impact of historical exploitation on today's hawksbill turtles.
Prior to the aquarium's research, which has been published in the journal Science Advances, data about the hawksbill trade went back only to 1950.
But researchers traced trade records from 1844 to 1992, including documents from Japan's customs archives.
Turtles have existed for millions of years and somehow survived the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs.
Now they're threatened not only by wildlife traffickers but also by plastic floating in the oceans that is mistakenly taken by some of them to be food. Ingesting the plastic can prove fatal for them.
Wildlife police battle against traffickers
In mid-February of this year, the author Joshua Hammer reported in The Wall Street Journal that police in the United Kingdom who specialize in uncovering "wildlife crimes" have been seizing rare eels that were destined to be shipped by air to Hong Kong.
Some turtles could have been mixed in with the shipments, given the sophisticated way in which the eels were packaged .
In an article titled "Meet the Wildlife Police," Hammer describes the scene at London's Heathrow Airport and the sophistication of the packaging used to ship wildlife species now on the edge of extinction to Asia.
The border force officers at Heathrow were suspicious of a stack of polystyrene foam trays marked "frozen fish" that had passed through customs in London on their way to a flight bound for Hong Kong.
The officers removed the top tray and recovered cartons of live baby glass eels, which belong to one of the world's most critically endangered species.`
In late August of 2019, Christine Madden Hof, marine species project manager for the Swiss-based World Wildlife Fund (WWF}, called on all countries concerned to work together to improve monitoring, detection, and law enforcement activities aimed at halting the illegal trade in sea turtles.
One problem with this is likely to be corruption among customs officials, who in some Southeast Asian countries can be bribed to look the other way as turtle shipments pass through.
In the United States, the Missouri Department of Conservation has been considering the imposition of restrictions on the "harvesting" of wild turtles species in the state.
Some of the turtles there were reported to be heading for consumption in China or use in Chinese traditional medicine.
It's already illegal in Missouri to capture, sell, or trade turtles in the pet trade. Snapping turtle and softshell turtle species are allowed as game for hunters but only if captured by approved methods. But it has apparently now reached the stage where the turtle population in Missouri will become so small that it can't be sustained.
To end on a positive note, a number of turtle lovers around the world have worked as volunteers to protect vulnerable turtles.
In late 2018, The New York Times reported on a nonprofit group in coastal Kenya that paid fishermen to halt the illegal capture of turtles. The group also managed to keep alive for several months a hawksbill turtle whose intestinal tract was clogged with plastic.
The turtle, whom they named Hogaar, had eaten small pieces of plastic that it had apparently mistaken for food such as jellyfish.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.
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