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ECOVIEWS: Turtles are disappearing around the world

September 9, 2018 GMT

Do not reveal the exact localities of where you found the turtles. This was an admonition to speakers at the annual meeting of the Turtle Survival Alliance, an international organization of scientists involved in turtle conservation. One concern is that unscrupulous poachers will find out where to capture rare turtles that can be sold on the black market. These unsavory people are known to attend such meetings, watch presentations and record locations where researchers are studying turtles. I actually saw a suspected poacher with a cellphone photographing a map during a PowerPoint presentation.

The presentations about conservation programs and findings of the top turtle researchers in the world ranged from disturbing to fascinating. Attendees from Australia, Brazil, Japan and Vietnam all had stories to tell. Many discussed the plight of tortoises in addition to freshwater and marine turtles. More than 300 attendees were present.

The most alarming fact was that of the 356 species of turtles, most are disappearing. The end of the trajectory for many appears to be extinction. Turtle problems start close to home. Joe Jenkins and Jim Godwin of Auburn University reported that the flattened musk turtle native to Alabama’s Black Warrior River is at risk of extirpation over 90 percent of its historic range. Sedimentation and pollution from upstream coal mining, agriculture and development cause major problems. I caught many a flattened musk turtle as a child. Will children have such opportunities in the future?

One study noted that 120,000 Mojave Desert tortoises were lost from designated conservation areas over a 10-year period. Habitat degradation, wildfires and road mortality were included among significant causes for declines. Similar losses are documented for other countries, with a diverse list of threats. Turtles in the Ganges River in India die from accidental captures in fishing nets, nest predation by feral dogs and intentional removal by hook and line. On some Galapagos Islands, a major threat to giant tortoises is habitat degradation by goats consuming native vegetation that the tortoises eat.

The critically endangered radiated tortoises of Madagascar are subject to one of the most alarming threats, poaching. Tortoises have been eaten as bush meat in some tropical cultures for centuries, but the impact is trivial compared to those removed illegally for commercial transport to other countries. A recent confiscation was 10,000 radiated tortoises that had been kept for months in a home in Madagascar awaiting sales. When discovered, many had died from dehydration. In addition to the horrific animal welfare issue, the loss to native tortoise colonies in the wild has been severe. The devastation to native tortoises in some parts of Madagascar and other countries is attributed to illegal capture for the pet trade and food markets.

A highlight of the meeting was a presentation by Jeff Lovich (U.S. Geological Survey) who noted that 61 percent of the world’s turtles are threatened or already extinct. The proportions are higher than mammals, birds, fishes or amphibians. He made a strong case for the value of turtles due to their ecological roles. Turtles represent a greater biomass than most other species in some habitats, and the services they provide to natural and even human-affected ecosystems are several. Many turtles propagate plants across the landscape by eating seeds that remain viable after passing through the turtle. Aquatic turtles transport seeds of plants such as water lilies. Box turtles disperse the seeds of mayapples and many other terrestrial plants. U.S. tortoises dig burrows that turn over the soil, making minerals and nutrients available to other animals and plants. Many turtles are important scavengers that keep waterways free of dead aquatic organisms including fish.

The environmental consequences of the collapse of turtles on a global scale are as yet unknown, but awareness of their contributions should inspire an educated public to join in conservation efforts in support of native turtles. And if you find out where one of the rare species lives, be careful whom you tell.