Illegal exports endanger box turtles

January 7, 2009 7:54:02 AM PST
The box turtle is disappearing across Malaysia because of increased illegal hunting for its meat and use in traditional Chinese medicine, wildlife activists said Wednesday.

TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, said in a new report that the Malayan Box Turtle "is in peril due to overexploitation" despite a Malaysian government ban on its export since 2005.

Since the ban, export of turtles for the pet trade in Japan, Europe and the United States ceased, but TRAFFIC found widespread evidence of continuing illegal export, mainly to Hong Kong, China and to a lesser extent Singapore.

Exotic meats from wildlife are much sought after by the Chinese, who also use body parts of animals for traditional medicines including aphrodisiacs.

There is no commercial breeding of the animal in Malaysia or elsewhere because it is expensive and time-consuming.

"To meet demand, animals are being taken from the wild at an unsustainable rate, which has to be addressed or they will disappear from the Malaysian countryside," said Sabine Schoppe, the author of the report.

The report said a survey of stock at two traders in Selangor state found 385 box turtles in a 38 day period.

Multiplying by the number of known illegal suppliers of turtles gives a conservative estimate of almost 22,000 animals illegally exported per year from Malaysia, Schoppe said.

"Simple maths leads you to the obvious conclusion: stop the over-exploitation of Malayan Box Turtles, before we lose them," she said.

She said the vast majority of the illegally exported Malayan Box Turtles - distinguished by three yellow stripes on the head and a dark olive carpace - are adults.

This is especially dangerous because the species has a slow reproductive cycle and produces a limited number of eggs in its life span of 30 to 35 years. A typical adult is about 20 cms (8 inches) long.

The Asian Box Turtle, which includes a range of box turtles including the Malayan variety, was listed as vulnerable to extinction by IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in 2000.

TRAFFIC, a joint program of IUCN and WWF, urged Malaysia to strictly implement the export ban for one generation to allow numbers to recover. It also called for better regional cooperation in controlling illegal wildlife trade, particularly at border crossings.

Misliah Mohamed Basir, deputy director of Malaysia's wildlife department, said it was difficult to stamp out the illegal trade. Smugglers, if even convicted, often get away with a fine.

"We try our best to curb this, but it's not an easy job," she said.