More types of turtles live in the United States than in any other country in the world.
Sadly, though, more than 2 million wild, freshwater turtles are caught and exported from the United States each year. Most are used to supply food and medicinal markets in Asia, where turtle consumption rates have soared and where native populations of turtles have already been decimated.
Overharvest has caused population declines in almost all turtle species and many are now either protected under the Endangered Species Act or under consideration for such protection.
But there’s another crucial step in saving these turtles: restricting their trade overseas.
Fortunately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just announced that it may propose 17 species of freshwater turtles for protection at the next meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 2013. The agency was responding to a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Turtle traders are depleting U.S. turtle populations at a frightening rate. It’s got to stop before we lose these incredible animals from the wild,” said the Center’s Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney and biologist who works to save endangered reptiles and amphibians. “Commercial harvesting only compounds the daily problems native turtles already face from habitat loss, water pollution and road mortality.”
A wide range of turtles need the extra protection. For example, the beautiful Barbour’s map turtle — now moving toward Endangered Species Act protection due to a Center listing petition — has suffered sharp declines because of overcollection for the pet trade. And the alligator snapping turtle, which can reach 250 pounds and is the largest freshwater turtle in the United States, has been intensively exploited for its meat. The Center petitioned several states in the South and Midwest to ban commercial harvest of snapping turtles and other native turtle species plummeting because of demand and a lack of regulation.
“The United States needs to act now to save our freshwater turtles,” said Adkins Giese. “International protection from exploitation is vital for the survival of wild freshwater turtle populations across the country.”
The United States is a turtle biodiversity hotspot, home to more types of turtles than any other country in the world. As part of a campaign to protect this rich natural heritage, the Center in 2008 and 2009 petitioned states with unrestricted commercial turtle harvest to improve harvest regulations. Florida responded by banning almost all commercial harvest of freshwater turtles from public and private waters, and earlier this year Georgia approved its first-ever state rules regulating the commercial collection of wild freshwater turtles. Alabama banned the commercial harvest of its turtles in regulations that became effective just this month. The Center has also petitioned to list several species of imperiled freshwater turtles under the Endangered Species Act.
Mounting scientific evidence shows that amphibians and reptiles (together called “herpetofauna”) are among the most imperiled species on Earth. Ubiquitous toxins, global warming, nonnative predators, overcollection, habitat destruction and disease are key factors leading to demise of amphibians and reptiles in the United States and worldwide.
The 17 species that the Fish and Wildlife Service may consider for CITES protection include the alligator snapping turtle, spotted turtle, Blanding’s turtle, diamondback terrapin and 13 species of map turtles, all of which the Center recommended in its 2011 petition. The Service also announced that four other species proposed by the Center — three species of softshell turtle and the common snapping turtle — will not be proposed for inclusion in the CITES appendices.
To see a range of states for each of the 17 species, go here.
For more information about the Center’s campaign to stop the amphibian and reptile extinction crisis, visit http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/amphibian_conservation/index.html.
Photo of baby alligator snapping turtle courtesy Flickr Commons/fluzwup.