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Freshwater turtles in “catastrophic decline”

Sept. 16, 2010
Courtesy of Conservation International
and World Science staff

A per­fect storm of hab­i­tat loss, hunt­ing and a pet trade is dec­i­mat­ing the world’s fresh­wa­ter tur­tle popula­t­ions, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis from wild­life pro­tec­tion group Con­serva­t­ion In­terna­t­ional.

Ur­gent ac­tion is needed to save the rep­tiles, say re­search­ers af­fil­i­at­ed with the Ar­ling­ton, Va.-based or­gan­iz­a­tion. A drop in many of the world’s tur­tle spe­cies, they add, is ev­i­dence that mis­man­age­ment of vi­tal fresh­wa­ter ecosys­tems is caus­ing deep and da­m­ag­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts that will af­fect peo­ple and wild­life alike.

The Myan­mar Riv­er tur­tle has seen its pop­u­la­tion plunge to few­er than a doz­en ma­ture an­i­mals due to egg col­lec­tion and hab­i­tat de­struc­tion, re­search­ers say. The last few spec­i­mens are be­ing raised at a zoo in Man­da­lay, Myan­mar for re-introduction.


“The key prob­lems these an­i­mals are fac­ing are changes to their hab­i­tats – in par­tic­u­lar be­cause of the da­m­ming of the riv­ers where they live for hydro-electricity, on top of hunt­ing for food and a very luc­ra­tive trade in rare tur­tles as pets,” said Pe­ter Paul van Dijk, di­rec­tor of the group’s Tor­toise and Fresh­wa­ter Tur­tle Con­serva­t­ion Pro­gram

“More than 40 per­cent of the plan­et’s fresh­wa­ter tur­tle spe­cies are threat­ened with ex­tinc­tion – mak­ing them among the most threat­ened groups of an­i­mals on the plan­et,” he added. “Their de­cline is an in­di­ca­tor that the fresh­wa­ter ecosys­tems that mil­lions of peo­ple rely on for ir­riga­t­ion, food and wa­ter are be­ing da­m­aged in a man­ner that could have dire con­se­quenc­es for peo­ple and tur­tles alike.”

The most threat­ened fresh­wa­ter tur­tle, with only four in­di­vid­u­als left alive any­where, is the Red Riv­er gi­ant soft­shell tur­tle of Vi­et­nam, van Dijk said. Two cap­tive spec­i­mens in Chi­na were brought to­geth­er three years ago and pro­duced eggs, but these failed to de­vel­op. An­oth­er, lone an­i­mal con­fined in Hoan Kiem lake in down­town Ha­noi is re­vered as sym­bol of Vi­et­nam’s in­de­pend­ence. And the last an­i­mal re­main­ing in the wild – al­so in Vi­et­nam – be­came the re­luc­tant sub­ject of a hos­tage dra­ma when his home res­er­voir burst its da­m in No­vem­ber 2008, was washed down­riv­er, and was caught by a fish­er­man who only re­leased it back to its na­tive wet­land af­ter pro­tracted ne­gotia­t­ions with con­serva­t­ion­ists.

Oth­er par­tic­u­larly threat­ened spe­cies iden­ti­fied are the red-crowned riv­er tur­tle of In­dia, whose small males take on spec­tac­u­lar col­ors for court­ship sea­son; the Myan­mar Riv­er tur­tle of Myan­mar, of which some ju­ve­niles are be­ing raised in a zoo for re-introduction to the wile; the Ro­ti snake-necked tur­tle of In­do­ne­sia, whose popula­t­ions were dec­i­mat­ed by the West­ern pet trade; and the huge South­east Asian gi­ant soft­shell tur­tle, which weighs up to a quar­ter ton.

“Fail­ure to pro­tect the source, flow and delivery of fresh­wa­ter in an in­ter­con­nected way, re­sults in a loss of ben­e­fits to spe­cies and peo­ple,” said Tra­cy Far­rell, lead­er of Con­serva­t­ion In­terna­t­ion­al’s Fresh­wa­ter team. “We have al­ready lost half of our wet­lands and da­mmed two thirds of our ma­jor riv­ers. Dam­ming in one place can have dra­matic con­se­quenc­es down­stream, and if we don’t con­sid­er the whole of a sys­tem we threat­en not only im­por­tant popula­t­ions of an­i­mals – like tur­tles – but al­so hu­man popula­t­ions that rely on these wa­terways.”


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A perfect storm of habitat loss, hunting and a pet trade is decimating the world’s freshwater turtle populations, according to a new analysis from wildlife protection group Conservation International. Urgent action is needed to save the reptiles, say researchers affiliated with the Arlington, Va.-based organization. A drop in many of the world’s turtle species, they added, is evidence that humanity’s management of vital freshwater ecosystems is causing deep and damaging environmental impacts that will affect people and wildlife alike. “The key problems these animals are facing are changes to their habitats – in particular because of the damming of the rivers where they live for hydro-electricity, on top of hunting for food and a very lucrative trade in rare turtles as pets,” said Peter Paul van Dijk, director of the group’s Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Conservation Program “More than 40 percent of the planet’s freshwater turtle species are threatened with extinction – making them among the most threatened groups of animals on the planet,” he added. “Their decline is an indicator that the freshwater ecosystems that millions of people rely on for irrigation, food and water are being damaged in a manner that could have dire consequences for people and turtles alike.” The most threatened freshwater turtle, with only four individuals left alive anywhere, is the Red River giant softshell turtle of Vietnam, van Dijk said. Two captive specimens in China were brought together three years ago and produced eggs, but these failed to develop. Another, lone animal confined in Hoan Kiem lake in downtown Hanoi is revered as symbol of Vietnam’s independence. And the last animal remaining in the wild – also in Vietnam – became the reluctant subject of a hostage drama when his home reservoir burst its dam in November 2008, was washed downriver, and was caught by a fisherman who only released it back to its native wetland after protracted negotiations with conservationists. Other particularly threatened species identified are the red-crowned river turtle of India, whose small males color spectacular for courtship season; the Myanmar River turtle of Myanmar, of which some juveniles are being raised in a zoo for re-introduction to the wile; the Roti snake-necked turtle of Indonesia, whose populations were decimated by the Western pet trade; and the huge Southeast Asian giant softshell turtle, which weighs up to a quarter ton. “Failure to protect the source, flow and delivery of freshwater in an interconnected way, results in a loss of benefits to species and people,” said Tracy Farrell, leader of Conservation International’s Freshwater team. “We have already lost half of our wetlands and dammed two thirds of our major rivers. Damming in one place can have dramatic consequences downstream, and if we don’t consider the whole of a system we threaten not only important populations of animals – like turtles – but also human populations that rely on these waterways for food, irrigation, drinking water and even transport.”