By Scott Pursner
Taiwan's yellow-margined box turtles are being overharvested at an alarmingly high rate in order to be shipped to China where wealthy businesspeople view the animal as an investment opportunity.
Also known as the Chinese box turtle, the small turtle with its high-dome shell was once a common sight throughout Taiwan but population numbers are declining rapidly. Most English-language reports on the threats to the species cite the pet trade or the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) industry are the likely culprits. But Dr Tien-hsi Chen, a professor at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology's Institute of Wildlife Conservation and Taiwan's foremost turtle expert, says the reality is much more complicated.
Taiwan is losing its turtles to rich Chinese individuals, Chen says, not because they want them as pets or for TCM but rather because they are "speculating" on the turtle market, as every year their value increases.
China is buying up the turtles from Taiwan now because of their relatively greater numbers. In all of mainland China, turtle hunters may catch 1,000 turtles per year. In Taiwan they are largely overlooked as a food source, as locals prefer to eat soft-shelled turtles instead, and hence catches are a lot larger. In 2010 alone, over 20 tonnes of the turtles, which weigh 500 g each on average, were smuggled across the Taiwan Strait.
Numbers have been declining sharply in Taiwan ever since, with around four tonnes of turtles shipped illegally each year, said Chen, adding that the rapid decline in the turtle population is great for investors as it drives up their price but worse for the turtles and for everyone else.
Chen said an entire network exists for the capture of the animals. Although Taiwan is generally a country that cares about conservation, Chen said that the economics prevail in the end. "Most people who catch turtles are poor. They go to Taipei from the countryside to work and can't find a job, so they move back home where there were no jobs to begin with. They get work chopping down trees or catching wildlife, since it gives them the chance to earn a bit of money."
Locals don't generally make a lot of money from their role, however, as they are unaware that a single turtle may eventually change hands for 3,000 yuan (US$485). Initially the turtle hunters operated in the eastern counties of Hualian and Taitung. They have since moved into southern Taiwan before slowly making their way north to the point where there are now locals collecting turtles all over the island. Once they have collected enough, they sell the turtles to hunters who then sell them to smugglers who broker the deals with the Chinese investors. These smugglers can make a good deal on each turtle just on the arbitration between the Taiwan dollar and the renminbi, Chen said.
To get them to China, one of two methods are used. The turtles are either concealed on fishing boats from the south of Taiwan or find their way to Kinmen, where trade rules are more relaxed since the island is just off the mainland coast. Once they arrive in China, they can be sold to the highest bidder.
Although China's is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade of Wild Species (CITES), Taiwan is not. This is due to Beijing's success in preventing Taiwan from joining international organizations or being a signatory to major international treaties that require statehood for membership. Taiwan has sought however to adapt its own legislation in line with such conventions. From Beijing's perspective, the trade, though not legal, is considered domestic trade and not an international smuggling issue, Chen said.
That the turtle market is well known can be attributed to a single company in China, Hua Zhi Xin, which has promoted the idea of turtles as a commodity and promoted their "turtle business model." Chen said the company has not only launched promotional websites but has also held competitions and other events to drive up turtle prices further. "You now have a turtle initially worth 2,000-3,000 yuan (US$320-$485) winning a pageant, after which its value soars to tens of thousands of renminbi."
The major centers of speculation are the southern coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, and the island province of Hainan. In Guangdong, a number of factory owners have built pens to keep their turtles in.
Dr Si-min Lin, an associate professor at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, is more of a geneticist than a zoologist, yet the nature of his work brings him in contact with many breeders and traders. Because of this, last year Taiwan's Forestry Bureau asked him to go on a fact-finding mission about the illicit cross-strait trade in turtles. He spent three or four days at the largest turtle farm in Guangzhou, meeting farm owners and observing how the business was run. He spoke of a powerful family led by a man surnamed Huang. Hated by many conservationists, Huang is seen locally as an inspiration to poor farmers and a benefactor to many in the local community with his millions. Lin said people like Huang are not necessarily the main villains in the trade — he is the kind of adroit and opportunistic entreprenur that China's government encourages. He added that it was interesting to behold huge factories or large beautiful homes, with a pen for turtles right behind them. Many of the owners look at it as a backup in case business slows, he said.
Lin said turtle prices never seem to go down either. A turtle valued at 1,000 yuan (US$161) may be worth be worth 1,200 yuan (US$193) a year later, an increase of 20%. "And it's just as easy as calling up a smuggler," Lin said. Furthermore, nobody really sells their turtles as each owner looks at them as a solid investment with those hyping speculation telling prospective owners that the turtles will bring a 100% return on investment. "If you do sell," Lin said, "it means there's something wrong and nobody will actually buy from you. Yet your neighbor hears about what an amazing opportunity having turtles is, sees these hyped-up websites, and goes looking for the smuggler's phone number."
Of the conditions under which the turtles are kept, Chen said mortality levels are high as the wild turtles do not respond particularly well to the amateur farmers' attempts at husbandry, necessitating the poaching of more turtles from the wild. Furthermore, since each owner wants to have many turtles, they don't give them very much space. The cramped conditions mean that breeding isn't as active as it would be during the turtlers' normal mating season, the males are more aggressive and the close quarters can disrupt reproduction. In the wild, the turtles may be expected to live for over 50 years, Chen said. It captivity, it isn't even half that.
Chen said that the immediate effects on the population of this specific breed are not obvious — it will take another five years or so to observe the effects of overharvesting. But efforts need to be made now to stop the trend, he said. Chen recommends stiffer fines for those caught smuggling as well as more nature reserves where the turtles would be better protected. There would need to be education initiatives to ensure the success of the reserves and stronger resolve from the government, he said.
Lin agrees, saying that people in Taiwan tend to be animal lovers who would never think of hunting turtles, but that more needed to be done to convince the public of their interest in stopping those who are.
There are a number of major loopholes that turtle hunters use to ply their trade without punishment. One of these is the way hunting is defined in Taiwan's Wildlife Conservation Act, passed in 1989. The law defines hunting as the use of drugs or tools such as guns or traps to catch animals. As a turtle can be simply picked up, this does not constitute a violation under the law. The fact that many female turtles use the drainage ditches next to roads to feed during their breeding season means they can be collected with relative ease.
Another loophole, Lin said, lies in the way the Act lists species as either wild or captive. All wild animals are illegal to catch or own. But it is a greyer area for captive wildlife — yellow-margined box turtles are not on the list of animals that are illegal to keep in captivity and must be freed if it is discovered they are being kept. The laws thus fail to offer protection to the species. More....