By Bennett Murray, Muong Vandy
Fuelling Asia Pacific’s appetite for the shelled reptiles is a trade that mixes legal and endangered species – and it’s almost impossible for the average diner to know which kind they are consuming
L&F Seafood, a large wholesaler on Street 95, stocks a multitude of ocean creatures, from crabs to sea bass. Mudfish swim in a grey tank. But, squashed in frozen brown blocks of a dozen or more, a more unusual animal can also be found – turtle.
These are Asiatic soft shells, among the most commonly consumed turtles in Asia and imported from Vietnamese farms, explained Wei Vat, the cashier. The species, which live in freshwater, is the only kind he can legally sell.
Vat’s customers, mostly Cambodians and Vietnamese, sometimes ask if he has any other types of turtle – particularly hard-shelled turtles, used in Chinese medicine as a remedy for kidney aliments. The answer is no, he says. “The Fisheries Administration comes two or three times a year, and they would confiscate anything [other than the soft shells\.”
Dealing in turtles is mostly illegal in Cambodia, where six of the 14 turtle species are endangered, some critically. The only legitimate options are to import them or buy from the single licensed farm. But a thriving trade that stretches from small provincial restaurants in Cambodia to Hong Kong fish markets makes them a valuable commodity and poaching abounds.
Earlier this month Wildlife Conservation Society, along with local authorities, rescued 23 turtles, many of which were either endangered or threatened, in Mondulkiri. “It is most likely that they were on the way to Vietnam, as they were taken only a few kilometres from the Vietnamese border,” said Alex Diment, senior technical coordinator for Wildlife Conservation Society.
Once on a farm, most of which are licensed and some with permission to breed rare species, poached animals can be “laundered” by mingling with their farmed counterparts. Then they are smuggled onward to markets in Hong Kong, mainland China and other parts of Asia-Pacific.
“They might be breeding a small number of [legal\ animals, but it is not meeting the demand and accounting for all their sales,” said Tim McCormack, program coordinator at the Hanoi-based Asia Turtle Programme. The supply gap is bridged through poaching, he said.
“It is very difficult to regulate these farms because it is not easy to identify individual animals in the farm unless you have access to people who know the species [apart\.”
For this reason, he argues, it is best not to consume any turtles. “You could argue that by simply providing an available source of turtles for consumption it gives the impression that it is okay to consume all turtle species,” he said.
Even the proliferation of commonly sold Asiatic soft shell turtles may threaten at least one endangered species, said Sun Yoeung, project leader of Conservation International. At his Mekong Turtle Conservation Centre in Kratie, Yoeung works with a monastery to rescue and release Cantor’s giant soft shell turtles, thought to have been extinct in Cambodia until a population was discovered in 2007.
Due to similarities in appearance with the Asiatic soft shell turtle, Yoeung fears the two species may become confused at restaurants and markets. “Physically, [Asiatic soft shell turtles\ are very similar to the Cantor’s turtle – it’s very hard for people to identify the species,” he said, adding that sometimes restaurant owners do not know the legality of their merchandise.
It is almost impossible for the average diner to know what they are getting at a restaurant, McCormick agreed. “People have to go out and research it on their own, and if they go to a restaurant they will not be represented with that information. But I think that the vast majority of people who consume wildlife don’t think about it.”
Nao Thouk, director of the Fisheries Administration, said capturing wild turtles can lead to up to a year in prison and a fine of up to around $1,250. He acknowledged, however, that the laws are rarely enforced.
To combat the trade, Thouk has taken to the road in order to educate people of the environmental costs of hunting illegal turtles. He plans to cover every province.
Back at Phnom Penh’s L&F Seafood,Vat, the cashier, said that he always tries to point his customers into the direction of his farmed products when they ask for something illegal.
“When customers come and they ask, I tell them that what we have are natural, farmed turtles,” he said. More....