Conservationists fight to save endangered turtles

Conservationists in Hong Kong battle to save critically endangered golden coin turtles, which are near extinction due to the threat of capture and trading for food or medicine. CNN's Ivan Watson reports.

Posted: Dec 29, 2018 7:07 AM
Updated: Dec 29, 2018 7:07 AM

There's only one place left on Earth where a critically endangered species of freshwater turtle is known to survive in the wild: Hong Kong.

Golden coin turtles are native to the metropolis' natural streams and surrounding vegetation but are so rare it's almost impossible to see one in the wild. Turtle traps, on the other hand, can readily be found.

Poachers capture the reptiles to sell as pets, food or use in traditional Chinese medicine.

The golden coin turtle has a special yellow hue on its head, and three black stripes on its shell. It's a type of box turtle, meaning it can lock its limbs and head inside its shell to guard against predators.

But that doesn't protect it from human hunters.

Trapped

Researchers supported by the Hong Kong government's Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department regularly search the city's extensive country parks to clear away traps.

"From observation, it seems that illegal traps have been in decline," said Yik Hei Sung, an ecologist and assistant research professor with the School of Biological Sciences at Hong Kong University.

"However, recent surveys show that at a certain time of year turtle trapping activity is really high. There's a good chance trapping is very active in some places."

All wild turtles are protected by law.

Researchers alert the government when they find a trap. Hunting wild animals is punishable by one year in prison and a fine of up to $13,000 (100,000 HKD).

The golden coin turtle is listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a global register. The Hong Kong government says anyone found with endangered species faces a maximum fine of $1.3 million ($10 million HKD) and 10 years in jail.

However, in the last three years only one person has been fined the relatively small sum of $1,500, after being caught with equipment to hunt wild creatures -- including turtles. No one has been prosecuted over golden coin turtles in recent years.

Because of their value as pets or for other purposes, rare turtles like the golden coin are bred on farms in China. It's also possible to own a wild turtle with a special license in Hong Kong.

However, experts say this provides a loophole via which wild golden coin turtles are sold as farmed versions in markets. Or shopkeepers use a license they've had for decades, even though they've traded many turtles in that time.

Prices vary, but turtle breeders can sell golden coin turtles for upwards of $10,000 online.

Breeding program

The survival of most turtle species is under threat in China, where many have been caught to fill the demands of medicinal, pet and food markets.

The semi-aquatic golden coin turtle used to be found across southern China, Vietnam and Laos. After conservationists realized it was disappearing from the wild, the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong started a breeding program.

"We've basically been building for about 20 years an assurance colony of the three-banded box turtle," Kadoorie senior conservation officer Paul Crow said. "This species is on the brink of wild extinction, it's nearly gone. The only place on the planet that we have any recent evidence of them breeding in the wild is here in Hong Kong."

While Hong Kong is best known as a skyscraper-packed metropolis, about 40% of the city's territory is protected country park land. The parks' lush forests and streams are ideal for golden coin turtles -- but are also easily accessible by poachers.

While breeding programs may save the golden coin turtle from extinction for now, researchers warn that unless the law is better enforced, it could die out in its last known native habitat in a matter of years.

"Over the last 10 to 20 years people have been seeing traps all over Hong Kong. There are basically very few streams that are easily accessible that have not been trapped," said Anthony Lau, an ecologist and lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University.

"For the turtles it is not getting better."

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