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Sea turtles continue to swim in troubled waters: report

A green sea turtle. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • TRAFFIC released new data about the prevalence of sea turtle trafficking in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
  • The group says at least 2,354 turtles were seized in the three countries from January 2015 to July 2019.
  • Tens of thousands of turtle eggs were also seized, mostly in Malaysia.

In myths and carvings, sea turtles are reverent creatures, carrying wisdom and worlds on their backs. In Hindu cosmology, the earth is supported by four elephants on the back of a turtle, while Chinese myths celebrate the tortoise as a celestial beast. Today, sea turtles are endangered and in decline, caught in intricate webs of illegal trade.

The illegal trade in marine turtles persists in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam with significant trade occurring in underground markets, according to a new report by TRAFFIC, an NGO working on wildlife trafficking.

“Turtle trade is unwavering,” said Kanitha Krishnasamy, co-author of the report and director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia. “There is still a very significant portion of local demand driving this trade in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.”

New seizure data from TRAFFIC indicates at least 2,354 turtles, both live and dead, were seized in 163 law enforcement incidents in the three countries from January 2015 to July 2019. More than 91,000 turtle eggs were also seized, with most seizures for eggs occurring in Malaysia.

Nearly all species of sea turtle — there are seven — are considered endangered or vulnerable, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Illegal trade, habitat loss and climate change all play a role in threatening their populations.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) prohibits commercial international trade of marine turtles and their parts, and all three countries — Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam — are parties to the convention. National laws in the three countries generally also prohibit trade in turtle parts and products, but the sale of eggs is legal in peninsular Malaysia.

Marine turtles are harvested for consumption, with traditional, religious and cultural practices tied to consuming their meat and eggs. Turtle meat can be an important source of protein for coastal communities. The shells of sea turtles, known by the Japanese word bekko, can be found in jewelry, souvenirs and luxury items, while in some cases, adult and juvenile turtles are even taxidermied.

A green sea turtle swims off the coast of Maui in the United States. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

The report found that Indonesia is an important supplier of the trade in turtle eggs, meat, shells and bekko products. There is considerable demand for turtle parts and products, with trade prevalent in the islands in the Indonesian archipelago such as Borneo, Java, Bali, Sulawesi, the Malukus and New Guinea.

“Indonesia features more prominently in turtle meat consumption, which is centered in Bali,” Krishnasamy told Mongabay. “Bali is a special case since the Balinese Hindu have no real taboo against eating turtle meat.”

In Malaysia, local demand for turtle eggs is high in the states of Sabah and Terengganu. In Sabah, local traders have developed covert hand signals of the OK sign to show availability of turtle eggs.

“In Malaysia, some states have outlawed the sale of turtle eggs but other states are not ready for hard legislation due to pushback from people,” Krishnasamy said. “Consuming turtle eggs has been part of the culture for generations.”

The report found that bekko products and taxidermied turtles are sold in open markets in Vietnam, which serves as both a destination and transit country in the trafficking of turtles to China.

To assess the nature of illegal trade, the report focused on three methods of collecting and analyzing data from January 2015 to July 2019. Researchers gathered trade data through surveys in physical markets and previously identified hotspots of the turtle trade in the three countries. They analyzed seizure data, a vast majority of which came from media reports and press releases issued by law enforcement agencies. Finally, the report looked at online sales on commercial platforms and social media networks in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Not all research was conducted during the peak nesting season of turtles, when poaching and trade of turtles and eggs is generally higher. The report also notes that since enforcement actions are reported and recorded inconsistently, it is unlikely that the data represents the actual number of illegal incidents of marine turtle trade.

“Marine turtles have long been swimming in troubled waters,” Krishnasamy said in a statement. “Considering these turtles’ populations are globally in decline, this level of persistent illegal trade presents a bleak future outlook for these marine nomads unless immediate, collaborative actions are taken as a matter of priority.”

A green turtle like this one can weigh up to 300 kilograms (660 pounds). Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

From fishermen to fleets, a complex trade network

The sea turtle trade is implicated in complex trafficking networks extending from small-scale fisheries to high-seas commercial fleets, according to research released earlier this year in the journal Science Advances.

The hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is a critically endangered species known for its unique, colorful and durable shell, which can be carved into decorative objects, ornaments and trinkets. Hawksbills are some of the least-abundant sea turtles, and they are a preferred species when it comes to the bekko trade.

“The beauty of the hawksbill tortoiseshell is its curse,” said Emily Miller, lead author of the research published in Science Advances and assistant research scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Nearly 9 million hawksbills were traded in Southeast Asia over the past 150 years — much more than previous estimates, the research found. The research analyzed seizure records of hawksbill trade and parts, import data in different countries and European colonial records, with the earliest record going back to 1844.

“Our research shows that there are long-standing trade networks — [the turtle trade] didn’t just spring up overnight,” Miller said. “It is an illegal activity now but historically it was just another trade, and now it has evolved and become more complex.”

The research found that Japan was a major importer of tortoiseshell, although it is important to note that the analysis relied on comprehensive records in Japan which might not exist for every other country. Still, the research concludes that Japan was historically a top importer. Indonesia emerged as a key exporter of tortoiseshell, with more than 2 million turtles sent abroad over 85 years.

“Hawksbill tortoiseshell has played a part [in turtle trade] from a cultural perspective in Southeast Asia,” Krishnasamy said. “You could equate their shells to the place ivory has in society — bekko products are traded in a similar fashion. There’s still a huge level of trade particularly in Japan. We’ve seen the trade reduced but it’s not reduced in a large enough portion.”

Substantial hawksbill trade continues today, and China has emerged as a major consumer of hawksbill turtles. Global markets are relying on small-scale fisheries, as hawksbills are typically found in shallower and nearshore habitats.

“If a fisherman comes across a hawksbill turtle that’s easy to harvest, that could mean their salary for a year if they’re just doing small-scale fishing,” Miller said. “It’s a difficult opportunity to pass up.”

Bakring, a 56-year-old fisherman on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, spends his own money to buy live turtles accidentally caught by his neighbors, nurse them back to health and release them back into the wild. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.

More research is needed into why small-scale fisheries might be involved in turtle trade. “Small-scale fisheries are a piece of the puzzle that need more investigation,” Krishnasamy said. “If we look at trade in turtle eggs and meat — closer to the point of harvest — we need to investigate how this trade contributes to livelihoods of local communities. But if we’re looking at trade in bekko products which is closer to urban areas – it is feeding the business sector in commercial areas.”

The complexity of sea turtle trade extends far beyond small-scale fisheries to commercial and distant fleets in international waters crossing continents, including those involved in unregulated and unreported fishing, according to existing research.

“The story of hawksbill turtle trade is one of globalization,” Miller said. “Even though there are many studies that will place blame on nations that are at the heart of it as far as exporting hawksbills, we are all to blame. It’s a global problem as we have globalized trade. You can purchase a tortoise shell online. It’s everybody’s problem to solve.”

Coordinated action and awareness, along with legislation, are seen as potential avenues to address the trade.

“There are many groups trying to combat this issue, said Miller. “I see hope in many of the nations that are major historical importers and exporters who are signing onto agreements like CITES, and actively taking steps to combat wildlife crime.”

For Krishnasamy, coordinated actions across borders and different sectors of society are needed to address sea turtle trade.

“We need real solutions that bring a wide variety of society into the fold,” Krishnasamy said. “All the way from decision-makers to the harvesters to the consumers to the online companies that are facilitating trade on the platforms used to sell [turtle] items. We are in a good position now — some of the policies and legislation are much better than they were 20 years ago.”

Banner: A green sea turtle. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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