There are 80–90 native species of land tortoises and freshwater turtles in South-East Asia (all referred to here as turtles). In the late 1990s a survey of Chinese food markets observed almost 10,000 turtles for sale. This uncontrolled use for food, traditional medicine, pets and jewellery threatens most species with extinction.
People in many countries have used turtles in food and medicine for thousands of years. The recent growth in the trade has been fuelled primarily by economic development in China, which has created a demand for imported wildlife from neighbouring countries.
Most wildlife conservation issues that concern the Asian turtles can be very broadly divided into:
- Biology and ecology issues – which include the reproductive rates of turtles, their vulnerability to predators and the impact of expanding human populations, deforestation and changing environmental conditions.
- Social issues – which include cultural practices, human poverty, economic development, inadequate enforcement of wildlife laws and a lack of understanding about the impact of collecting turtles.
To protect turtles, it is vital to understand why the people threatening them behave the way they do. They may not have enough food to eat, or sufficient income, or they may have strong beliefs or customs about traditional food. Human poverty is often a very important underlying issue that wildlife conservationists must be sensitive to. The goal is conservation that is socially and economically sustainable.
Addressing the issues
These complex and interrelated issues make it difficult to implement a single straightforward solution. A major regional meeting in Cambodia in 1999 helped establish a broad recovery strategy that governments, organisations and communities could employ to help conserve turtles. The meeting recognised that while many countries, including China, have laws that prohibit illegal collection from the wild and minimise habitat loss, they often lack the resources to implement these laws. Sometimes the issue is insufficient staff or not enough money for training or equipment, and sometimes field and administration personnel are very poorly paid, making it difficult to prevent corruption.
One of the most effective turtle conservation projects is based in Cuc Phuong National Park in northern Vietnam. The Turtle Conservation Center, in conjunction with the national park, the Vietnamese Government, local communities and organisations such as Melbourne Zoo, works to:
- remove turtles from the illegal trade
- maintain and breed turtles in captivity
- employ local villagers as keepers and guards
- train Vietnamese agency staff in turtle identification, captive care and monitoring in the wild
- develop education programs and materials for local schools and communities to increase awareness of turtles and how to protect them
- work with other groups in South-East Asia to provide training in turtle care and conservation
- release turtles back into the wild in protected areas.
The close connection with the local Cuc Phuong community is very important, as it builds a shared understanding of wildlife conservation and its benefits to people. These benefits include clean rivers and protected forests, increased employment and big-spending tourists. These benefits combine to create a project that is sustainable over the long term and not dependent on ongoing support from external donors.
The project’s extensive education program to help people become aware of the need to protect turtles includes a film, board game, posters and stories. The picture story book, Lucky Turtle, printed in Vietnamese, English and Chinese, follows the adventures of a little turtle that is collected from the forest and ends up in an animal dealer’s warehouse, only to escape and make its way back home.
Hope for the future
The achievements at the Cuc Phuong Turtle Conservation Center, together with other initiatives in the region, point to a brighter future for Asia’s turtles. Among other achievements:
- A group of keeled box turtles have been successfully returned to Cuc Phuong National Park and are being monitored by local staff.
- Vietnamese staff at the Cuc Phuong Conservation Turtle Center have gained skills in captive turtle management and breeding, and the national park itself has taken responsibility for managing the project.
- Staff from five other national parks in Vietnam and Cambodia have been trained in turtle identification and management. This has enabled the return of more than 40 turtles to their original habitat.
- The People’s Committee of Hanoi is actively protecting one of only four known specimens of the giant Asian softshell turtle in Hoan Khiem Lake in Hanoi.
- With the active involvement of Education for Nature–Vietnam (ENV), the Vietnamese Government is enforcing wildlife laws and prosecuting people who try to smuggle turtles out of Vietnam.
Crucial to these, and future, successes is the building of respectful and professional relationships with the local communities. These are the people who will ultimately secure a future for Asia’s turtles.
Asia Turtle Conservation Network www.asianturtlenetwork.org
Education for Nature–Vietnam www.envietnam.org
New York Turtle and Tortoise Society www.nytts.org/vietnam