Fate of the
Turtles have the highest longevity levels among all animals on earth. Today they do not live till their adolescence, succumbing to our human consumerist whims and caprice. When tourists from Europe — East or West go to visit the turtle-rich regions, what they crave for are shells, ornaments made out of them and their mouths water with the word «turtle meat». It is great to possess souvenirs made out of turtle remains, only if you did not read this material and you are not ashamed. Let us examine what we have done to these innocent creatures.
Turtles in Crisis:
Centuries old Chinese trade routes spread like fingers throughout Asia bringing the fauna of the continent into their food markets.
Trade is currently the largest threat to turtles and China is one of the largest consumers of turtles in the world. Unfortunately, relevant data on trade, captive breeding, population number and life history of turtles are lacking. This seriously hinders conservation measures. Published market surveys are valuable additions to our knowledge of turtle trade. In March 2002, survey of the Chinese and world markets by the Tortoise Trust revealed the following:
Qingshiqiao market — 6 stands selling 11 species (740 turtles). The majority (95%) were Trachemys scripta elegans with 91% of them fresh hatchlings. The remaining 5% were rare species. .
Huaniao market — 10 stands selling 7 species (529 turtles) in Kunming. Once again, the majority (98%) were T. scripta elegans hatchlings (only 3% were adults). The other 2% included rare and fresh hatchlings.
Many turtle dealers illegally buy and sell CITES listed species. Some of the trading is now done behind closed doors. Therefore, it is not possible to see all the species traded. Most turtle dealers know what species are legal to sell and hide the others far from their stands. In one case, the turtle dealer kept his turtles in a room behind the market. This illustrates that surveys and enforcement based on “surface counts” underestimate the trade. Many of the turtles had serious injuries and infections and suffered from starvation and dehydration. One turtle dealer explained that the price of the turtle was the same if it was dead or alive because they would sell either the shell or the meat.
By now, trade in turtles and tortoises captured in the wild, has become massive. In 1996, 3.5 million kg. of turtles were imported and consumed in Hong Kong alone. In 1993 approximately 200,000 — 300,000 individual turtles and tortoises were exported from the Cau Mong market in Ho Chi Minh City.
Harvesting methods for the food markets are as varied as the species found in the markets themselves. Turtles are speared, netted, trapped, caught with hook and line, and dug out of the mud during low water periods or while aestivating.
The situation in Thailand is certainly no better. In 1890, 2,600 Batagur baska and Kachuga trivittata were nesting communally in the Ayeyarwady river delta. By 1899 this population was down to 820, while in 1982 the same area accounted for “only a few”. Most recently, a 1997 United Nations Development Program study found none.
Of the 26 species of non-marine chelonians reported from India, 19 are found in northeastern India. However, a plethora of anthropogenic stresses are now exerting severe pressure on this interesting group of reptiles, such as habitat destruction, deforestation, urban and agricultural expansion, hunting, trapping for flesh, rapid incursion of consumerist culture and the lure of easy money, use in traditional and alternative medicine and superstitious beliefs. Although poaching is a problem, turtles have historically received community-sanctioned religious protection in many temple tanks in this region. Examples include softshell turtles protected in the Kamakhya temple at Guwahati, Assam and Aspidaretes gangeticus in the Tripureshwari temple at Udaipur, Tripura. More recently, the Shiva temple at Tinsukia, Assam has started offering turtles sanctuary. Thus ex situ conservation of chelonians in community and temple tanks and in public gardens could also constitute a useful mechanism for conservation.
The Order of the Tortoise
²This society was inspired by The Order of the Dolphin founded in 1961 by Carl Sagan, Philip Morrison, Francis Drake, John Lilly, et al, uniting individuals with a similar wishful but scientific attitude towards the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The dolphin was their symbol of non-human intelligence, just as the tortoise is the symbol of all-too-human tenacity in the search for things seemingly contrary to accepted science. Order of the Tortoise represent a group of conventional scientists and engineers who wish that Cold Fusion, Free Energy Devices, and Transmutation were real, and want to see rigorous investigation of the serious claims. The plodding Tortoise — making painfully slow progress but undaunted and un-discouraged — symbolizes humankind's enduring quest for these elusive (illusory) goals.
Enriching “Human” Market Economy
Because Myanmar has not issued CITES export permits, no tortoise can be legally imported into any country, whether for food or ex situ captive reproduction, hence the thriving black market. A similar situation regarding Madagascar's endemic chelonians is unfolding. At hotels, markets, gas stations — most everywhere where travelers and tourists stop in southern Madagascar within the range of these tortoises — they are offered for sale for 50 cents or more.
The Egyptian Tortoise, Testudo kleinmanni, is the most endangered species of tortoise in the entire Mediterranean region. The Saiyyida Aisha animal market in Cairo is the single most important center for the illegal trade in Testudo kleinmanni. From here, tortoises illegally collected in Libya are distributed to pet stores, foreign buyers, and individuals. The conditions at Saiyyida Aisha are among the worst. Tortoises are stacked 5 meters or more deep, with dead and dying animals mixed with the living.
In its California market survey report, the Tortoise Trust pointed out that, no evidence was found to support the contention that the bulk of turtles sold in food markets in California were bred in captivity. Quite the opposite. Without exception, all the animals examined were wild caught.
More recent perils to these species include “sand mining” and dam construction. Dams alter water height, eliminating nesting sites. The sandy riverbanks, which serve as traditional communal nesting sites are literally being scooped out and removed as the need for sand for construction increases. Mislabeled as seafood, the turtles and tortoises are stacked in wooden crates violating International Air Transport Association (IATA) shipping regulations. The trade in turtles is brisk, highly developed and ignored by border guards, customs officials and airline personnel on both the export and import sides of the Asian borders.
Flagrant disregard for any and seemingly all international conservation laws, including Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) are routine as visits to any market in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen may show. The inadequacies and archaic political nuances of CITES itself is proving to be a virtual death sentence for many endemic species. In Asia one can eat them, boil them, butcher them, sell them, destroy their habitat but one cannot legally export, hence import any for captive reproduction, which may be their only hope for survival as a species. Keep in mind that as a note to the original description of the Burmese star tortoise (Blyth 1863 in Gunther 1864) states that the indigenous peoples were so fond of eating them that it was very difficult to obtain a living specimen. Hopefully CITES will realize that endemic species cannot be “owned” by a single country and when that country cannot and does not protect the endemic species found within its borders, will take action, or at the least allow responsible conservation groups to do so.
Despite these grim pictures, several new species have been discovered. The only way out is for market economy serving humans turn humane, and opportunities from the pet sector could provide the necessary incentive to ranch the hard shell species. It would thus create a self sustaining supply and becoming a de facto conservation activity. Perhaps it will “buy” some time for these species, for them to reach their adulthood at least. Until then the international declarations remain only on paper.
Chelonians in East Europe and the Former
There are seven major species: the Central Asian Tortoise, Agrionemys (= Testudo) horsfieldii, others include the Mediterranean Spur-thighed Tortoise, Testudo graeca, the Chinese Softshell, Pelodiscus sinensis, the European Pond Turtle, Emys orbicularis and the Caspian Turtle, Mauremys caspica, as well as the Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Caretta caretta, and the Leatherback, Dermochelys coriacea.
The only unique kind of turtle as fauna of Crimea and Ukraine is the marsh turtle (Emys orbicularis L.) In Crimea it is seldom seen. It lives in ponds, the rivers, channels. It can float and dive very well. The length of the shell of an adult turtle may reach 20 cm. The marsh turtle lives both in water, and on land. It eats insects, crabs, molluscs, tadpoles, frogs, less often — fish while in water and on land — its food consists of insects, wood lice and other worms.
Bid to end turtle feasts
Twenty years ago, a typical wedding in Seychelles was not complete without the traditional slaughter of a marine turtle to mark the festivities. On Sundays, Seychellois families would sit down to enjoy a spicy turtle and eggplant curry or boiled turtle head soup.
Tourists would linger over souvenir stalls, haggling over the price of turtle shell combs, picture frames and jewellery. These days it's very different. Exotic turtle cuisine and handicrafts have been replaced by protected beaches for turtles and stiff penalties for poachers, thanks to a government ban outlawing the poaching of the endangered marine reptiles.
But a lucrative black market has emerged where Seychellois are willing to pay dearly for tasty turtle meat. Trade in turtle meat is widespread because of demand among the island's 80,000 people for the salted flesh, a local delicacy.
Seychelles hosts globally important populations of marine turtles, with four — the Hawksbill, Green, Leatherback and Loggerhead — of the world's eight species found in the region.
These islands are the only place left where these turtles come up to breed in the daytime.
Green turtles are also abundant and nest on the coral atoll of Aldabra where thousands of females haul themselves ashore each year to breed.
Since the late 1700s, the meat of these prehistoric animals has been used by Seychellois to make soups, curries and stir fries, served as a delicacy on special occasions such as weddings, anniversaries and birthdays. Artisans made handicrafts such as jewellery, picture frames and combs from the shells to sell to tourists and export to Asian countries like Japan.
With turtle populations dwindling dramatically, Seychelles became a signatory to the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1977. In 1994, the government enforced a strict ban on poaching and stiff penalties for those found guilty of involvement in the trade of turtle products. With funding from the World Bank, artisans have been retrained and given new jobs and the population now has a greater awareness of environmental issues.
But demand for the salted meat known locally as "kitouz" still exists amongst the older generations who are reluctant to give up the age-old practice of eating it.
Seychellois taste buds still tempt them to pay $40 a kilo for turtle flesh or $1,000 for live turtles, which are kept secretly in homes to be slaughtered.
With such a lucrative market, organised vessels, fitted with high tech equipment and harpoons, secretly scour the seas surrounding the Seychelles for the turtles, which can weigh up to 200 kg.
Poachers also wait discreetly on remote beaches to pounce on female turtles that swim ashore to lay their eggs.
The government is making serious efforts to stop the practice, by setting up a 24-hour hotline for the public to give information on poaching and organizing publicity campaigns.
Lack of resources, unguarded coasts and well-funded organized poaching vessels have impeded government efforts.
Even after arrests are made, court cases can take years and evidence of confiscated turtle meat is strangely missing, often believed to have been eaten by the police themselves.
An unprecedented court ruling in March 2004, which fined five men $7,000 each for possessing turtle meat, has however brought some optimism to the lobby against poaching.
Government officials and conservationists hope that this will signal a warning to turtle meat consumers and poachers alike that having turtle soup on the menu comes at a cost not worth bearing.
The Contracting Parties, when taking measures in accordance with this Convention for the prevention, reduction and control of the pollution of the marine environment of the Black Sea, shall pay particular attention to avoiding harm to marine life and living resources, in particular by changing their habitats and creating hindrance to fishing and other legitimate uses of the Black Sea, and in this respect shall give due regard to the recommendations of competent international organizations.
Protection of the Marine Living Resources,
Convention on the Protection of the Black Sea Against Pollution,
signed 21 April 1992, entered into force in 1994
Songs of the Turtle
Tortoise — is the symbol of wisdom, and isable to defend itself on its own.
It personifies Water, Moon, Mother-Earth, Time, Immortality and Fertility. The starting of creation is associated with the tortoise and it is also believed that the tortoise bears the burden of the whole world.
The tortoise was also the symbol of the ancient Greek city of Peloponnes, the seal of the city city showed images of tortoise. Chelone — the famous greek tortoise god, is also the inspiration for this species being called the Chelonians!
Indians of North America used combs made out of tortoise shell to signify the margin between life and death. According to their beliefs, the cosmic tree emerges from the spine of the tortoise.
In African fairy tales, the tortoise is the most clever animal.
In India, the tortoise, Kurmavatara, is an incarnation of Vishnu, it is also Kasyapa, the northern star, the first living being, forefather of Vishnu — the protector. The lower part of the shell symbolizes the earthly world and the upper part — the heavenly world. The tortoise holds the elephant, on the back of which rests the earth, and the elephant is the masculine symbol and the tortoise the feminine. Ancient Indian beliefs state that the earth rested on four elephants, which stood on a huge tortoise, which very slowly moved through all kinds of chaos.
In China the picture character, symbolizing this reptile is a pictogram, shows at the top of it the head like that of a snake, to the left the paws, to the right — the shell and at the bottom — the tail. According to the “Book of ceremonies”, single-horned rhino, phoenix, tortoise and the dragon are the four entities having spirit. For Chinese the tortoise is sacred, and symbolizes longevity, power and tenacity. It is said that the tortoise helped P'an Ku create the world. For the Chinese, as well as the Indians, the tortoise symbolizes the universe. Quoting Pen T'sao, “the upper dome-shaped part of its back has various signs, which correspond with the constellations on the sky, and this is Yan; the lower part has many lines, which relate to the earth and is the Yin.
The Chinese believe that the tortoise come out durign spring when they change their shells, and hibernate during the winter, and this is the reason for their long life.
Some Chinese are of the opinion that, their script was taken from the signs on the back of the tortoise. Tortoise shells were used for witchcraft and future forecasting. There are innumerable tales on the longevity of the torotises and their ability to transform into other forms.
Legends hold that, the wooden columns of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing were built on the shells of live tortoises — as people believed that these animals are capble of living more than 3000 years, and do not need food or water, and they also believed that the tortoises are adorned with the magical power of protecting the wood from rotting.
The Chinese Imperial Army carried flags with iamges of dragon and tortoise, as symbol of unparallelity and inaccesibility, as both these animals fought with each other but both remained alive. The dragon cannot break the tortoise and the latter cannot reach the dragon.
In China, the tortoise was also called the Black warrior, standing for the symbol of power, tenacity and longevity, as well as that of north and winter. The tortoise was often put at the base of burial monuments. It was considered that, the tortoise does not remember the day and month of its birth, so calling someone a “tortoise” in China was considered offensive. And in Tibet, the tortoise is a symbol of creativity.
In Polynesia the tortoise personified the war god Tu. Drawing tatoo marks of tortoise was a custom among the warriors.
In the Tahiti island the tortoise is the shadow of the gods and the lord of the oceans.
According to traditional Japanese beliefs the tortoise is a haven for the immortals and the world mountain and symbolizes longevity, god luck and support. It is the symbol of Kumpira, the god of the seafaring people.
For the alchemists, the tortoise symbolizes chaos (massa confusa).