International Trade Threatens Turtle Species Diversity

(10.01.2017) When it comes to pets, only birds outpace reptiles in terms of the number of species sold worldwide. Many of these reptiles, including tortoises and freshwater turtles, are taken from their natural habitats for use in international trade.

While this trade is regulated to a degree, the sale of millions of these captured animals still occurs and is a large threat to the survival of these species in the wild.

Chelonian Conservation and Biology Authors of an article in the current issue of Chelonian Conservation and Biology analyzed 20 years of data on the international turtle trade, spanning from 1990 to 2010, and found that trade of wild turtles and tortoises for pets and food reached a peak in the early 2000s, particularly in Asian countries, followed then by a significant decrease.

The study also reports that the United States is among the top three exporting countries of wild turtles and tortoises, and is the number one importer of these animals. In fact, most importers reside in North America or Europe where breeding conditions are most ideal.

The authors looked at information from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) trade database, which accounts for all declared records of legal import and export of wild species.

Because sea turtles are banned from commercial trade, the study focused on wild imports of freshwater turtles and tortoises.

While 48 species are part of the regular wild turtle and tortoise trade, more than 100 others are traded intermittently, with 90 percent of the animals coming from four families of softshell turtles.

The authors found that about 2 million wild turtles and tortoises were traded over a 20-year period, a number they consider conservative, with annual trade numbers tripling in that time. “Turtles and tortoises represent a conspicuous target for the international pet trade,” said lead author Luca Luiselli.

“South America and tropical Asia represent the main export continents, and several species are of conservation concern because of this trade.”

The study confirmed large international trade of wild turtles and tortoises, with numbers varying widely among different regions of the world. What the authors do not know is whether CITES regulation has reduced trading in Asia or whether the wild populations have collapsed.

“When we talk about losing millions of turtles from the wild,” said Chelonian Conservation and Biology editor Jeff Seminoff, “it’s pretty amazing that populations are able to persist at all.”

Full text of the article “A Short Review of the International Trade of Wild Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles Across the World and Throughout Two Decades,” Chelonian Conservation and Biology, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2016, is now available at

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