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Top 25 most endangered turtles: Asian species in crisis

Surviving hundreds of millions of years on Earth have not saved turtles from facing extinction at human hands. A new report by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Turtle Conservation Coalition, identifies the world’s 25 most imperiled turtles, including one that is practically assured extinction: ‘Lonesome George’ the last Abdington Island tortoise in the world. The list includes four turtle species from South and Central America, three from Africa, and one from Australia. But Asia is the hotbed for turtles in trouble with 17 of the top 25 species, or 68%. The numbers are even more alarming if one looks only at the top ten: eight of the top ten are in Asia, and six of these in China.

“Turtles are being unsustainably hunted throughout Asia,” explained co-author Brian D. Horne of the WCS in a press release. “Every tortoise and turtle species in Asia is being impacted in some manner by the international trade in turtles and turtle products. In just one market in Dhaka, Bangladesh we saw close to 100,000 turtles being butchered for consumption during a religious holiday, and we know of at least three other such markets within the city.”

The red-crowned roofed turtle (Batagur kachuga) is one of 25 species listed in a new report issued by the Turtle Conservation Coalition today in Singapore. The species is limited to a few isolated pockets along the Ganges and Brahmaputra River basins in India and Bangladesh and is listed as Critically Endangered on IUCN’s Red List. Credit: Brian D. Horne/Wildlife Conservation Society.

Along with the booming wildlife trade for food and traditional medicine in Asia, turtles are vanishing due to the pet trade and habitat loss.

In addition to the Abdington Island tortoise, the Yangtze giant softshell tortoise (Rafetus swinhoei), considered number two on the list, is perilously close to extinction. The last two known individuals are housed in China’s Suzhou Zoo where WCS veterinarians and Chinese officials are working to spur this final pair to breed. Two other individuals may survive in the wild.

Widespread destruction of the Yangtze River ecosystem in China—pollution, traffic, dams, and overfishing—has already led to an extinction crisis in the region. The baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin, is almost certainly gone, and the Chinese paddlefish may be extinct as well. Other inhabitants of the Yangtze are on the edge: the Chinese alligator, the finless porpoise, and the Chinese sturgeon.

The Burmese star tortoise (Geochelone platynota) is characterized by well defined, symmetrical star patterns that radiate across the reptile’s carapace or shell. Very little is known about the species, which is threatened by both the pet trade and a demand for meat. The Burmese star tortoise is listed as Critically Endangered. Photo Credit: Brian D. Horne/Wildlife Conservation Society.

“Turtles are wonderfully adapted to defend themselves against predators by hiding in their shells, but this defense mechanism doesn’t work against organized, large-scale human hunting efforts. The fact is that turtles are being vacuumed up from every nook and cranny in Asia and beyond,” said Liz Bennett, Vice President of WCS Species Program.

Conservationists say most of the threatened species could be saved with improved enforcement of wildlife trade laws, protecting habitat, and captive breeding programs.

Ten turtle species are known to have gone extinct since 1500 AD, most of them from island habitats.

Top 25 Most Endangered Turtles:

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