By Ayako Tsukidate
TOKONAME, Aichi Prefecture--Customs officers stopped a couple from boarding a flight out of Japan with hundreds of rare turtles, which are high valued in China for their medical properties and as pets.
In the incident in early May, officers at Chubu Airport here confiscated 400 or so Asian brown pond turtles and Japanese pond turtles.
Trans-border transactions of the creatures have been regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), also known as the Washington Convention, since 2013.
The turtles, packed in suitcases, were bundled in pairs with their bellies facing each other and stuck inside socks.
The couple’s nationality and their destination have not been disclosed.
Under the Washington Convention, government permission is required to export the turtle species. The Environmental Ministry effectively banned the export of Asian brown pond turtles from Japan in April.
Nagoya Customs are investigating the case as an attempted violation of the Customs Law’s ban on the unauthorized export of regulated products.
Customs officers at the airport also caught a passenger attempting to export 80 or so rare turtles, including Asian brown pond turtles, without permission in April.
The Asian brown pond turtle is a subspecies that inhabits rice paddies on Ishigaki, Iriomote and Yonaguni islands in the southernmost island chain of Okinawa Prefecture. The first ever survey conducted by the Environment Ministry in 2014 estimated the population of Asian brown pond turtles on the islands at 33,000.
Approval was granted for the export of 1,000 and 5,214 Asian brown pond turtles in fiscal 2013 and 2014, respectively. The ministry banned exports in April based on its concern that the species could become extinct within just eight years if the turtles continued to be captured at this pace.
Japanese pond turtles, which are indigenous to Japan, widely inhabit rivers and other waterfronts in the Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu islands. A total of 3,850 turtles were exported from Japan in fiscal 2013, followed by 11,155 in fiscal 2014, mainly to China.
According to a turtle hunter based in Aichi Prefecture, who also exports his catches to China, Asian brown pond turtles are highly valued in China as an ingredient for “turtle jelly” that is widely eaten for its supposed health and cosmetic benefits.
The turtle’s shell and bones are also ground up and used as ingredients for traditional Chinese herbal medicines.
Japanese pond turtles are also cherished as pets, as their yellow and orange shell patterns are viewed as harbingers of good financial fortune under traditional feng shui philosophy.
The two species are traded at 2,000 yen to 8,000 yen ($16.45 to $66) in Japan but fetch twice to 10 times those prices in China.
While export of the turtles are regulated by the Washington Convention, capturing or possessing them is not legally prohibited in Japan.
This means that customs authorities may have to return the confiscated turtles to their owners, depending on the outcome of their investigation.