They have thrived for 220 million years, and have survived countless predators, but sadly they are no match to their worst enemy yet: Mankind. Annually millions of turtles are imported into China alone from all over Asia, North America and Africa. Most of China’s indigenous turtles are already extinct in the wild.
While large scale farming is underway in China to meet the demand for meat and medicinal purposes, it is still unsustainable. Without a concerted effort globally it is estimated that many of these iconic relics of the dinosaur age will be extinct in the next few decades.
“Turtles are in serious trouble. They are some of the world’s most endangered vertebrates, more than mammals, birds, or even highly endangered amphibians. Half of their species are threatened with extinction,” says Dr. Anders Rhodin, Chair of the TFTSG and one of the report’s co-editors. “They’re being unsustainably collected from the wild for food, perceived medicinal beliefs and pets while their habitats are being polluted, degraded and destroyed every day.”Lonesome George, the last remaining Pinta Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdoni), one of Darwin’s famed Galápagos tortoises, tops the list. Close behind is the Red River Giant Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) of China and Vietnam, weighing over 100 kg with a shell over a meter long. With only three males and one female left in the world, the stakes have never been higher.
Turtles and tortoises are keystone species, in other words they have a disproportionate effect on the environment in proportion to their biomass. This means that the loss of these creatures will have a negative impact on ecosystems and critically important cycles necessary for sustaining biodiversity.
“Turtles are disappearing fast and we are dealing with one of the most significant wildlife crises of our lifetime. This should be a wake-up call for all of us,” says Rick Hudson, President of the TSA and a co-editor of the report. “We are moving into crisis management mode and embarking on a challenge that is unprecedented in terms of risk if we don’t succeed. To win this battle, we must see increased investment from the international donor community combined with improved enforcement and well-resourced conservation programs.”
We are privileged to have the greatest diversity of tortoises in the world here on the subcontinent of Africa. In South Africa there are five genera and fourteen species. This includes the smallest tortoise species known, the Homopus signatus found in the wide open spaces of Namaqualand, reaching a size of about 8cm and weighing in at just 70 g!
Sadly our rural population is also known to harvest tortoises for their meat, known as karookreef or skilpadbraai and in our towns the pet trade is adding to their extermination. Most of these animals die soon after being caught through incorrect diet, habitat and neglect.