By Kate Elizabeth Queram
In response to possible population threats from increased demand overseas, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking protective measures for the snapping turtle, a freshwater reptile that resides in all 100 of North Carolina’s counties.
“A number of Asian countries eat a lot of turtles, and use them in medicines and things like that,” said Jeff Hall, a Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “North America in the last couple of decades has been targeted pretty well in terms of harvesting animals from here to be shipped there. Right now we don’t have a lot of good information about how many animals are shipped, but (this change) would allow Fish and Wildlife to track the animal.”
The snapping turtle is one of four that would be protected under the new rules, proposed two weeks ago. The Florida softshell turtle, the smooth softshell turtle and the spiny softshell turtle are also included in the measure. Two subspecies of the spiny softshell turtle reside in North Carolina, in the Piedmont region and the mountains, but none of the others live here.
None of the four are in danger of extinction, but their long-term survival could be threatened if turtle exports continue unchecked.
According to the federal agency, 811,717 live snapping turtles were exported from 2009 to 2011, the most recent year that data were available. Exports of snapping turtle meat also increased during that same time period. Those numbers, pulled from U.S. export records, are likely low, as exporters aren’t currently required to declare turtle shipments by species.
“What we’re trying to do is monitor the trade as a way of preventing the species from becoming endangered,” said Bruce Weissgold, an international trade expert with the federal agency.
It’s also not clear how many exported turtles are caught in the wild, which is permitted in most states, including North Carolina.
“If you want to catch more than four snapping turtles, you need a wildlife collection license, which costs $5,” Hall said. “That allows the person to collect as many as 10 per day, up to 100 per year. We have seen an increase in the number of people applying for that license, and in the number of people out there trapping turtles.”
Snapping turtles reside in freshwater and brackish marshes and rivers throughout the state. They’re brown-gray, between 10 and 20 inches long, and live the majority of their lives in the water, though they’re occasionally found on land.
“If you happen upon a snapping turtle on land, it’s because they are moving from one wetland to another, or it’s a female that’s coming to lay her eggs,” Hall said. “Their defense is kind of to turn and face their attacker and gape their mouth. Speed is not their ally when they’re out on land.”
The proposed protective measure would list the turtles in a special appendix under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, which aims to protect species vulnerable to over-harvesting through international trade. Once the turtles are listed, trading them internationally requires a permit that specifies that the animal was caught in a way that’s allowable under state law, and that it’s shipped overseas humanely. That process will give federal officials more information about how many wild turtles are being exported each year, which could help manage their populations.
“Beyond collecting data on exports, this listing also allows us to essentially request the help of other CITES parties in monitoring the trade of these species, because customs control is generally done at the importing end,” Weissgold said. “They’ll be more closely scrutinized on the receiving end, which will give us greater confidence that illegal trade is not occurring.”
For more information or to comment on the proposal, visit http://1.usa.gov/1sJcrLm.