Report highlights Indonesia's illegal freshwater turtle trade

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Growing demand for tortoises and freshwater turtles by exotic pet owners is fuelling rampant illegal trade in the pet markets of Indonesia, according to a report from the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

Investigators from TRAFFIC surveyed pet markets in Jakarta and found 48 species of freshwater turtle and tortoise on sale, the majority of which had been obtained illegally.

Among the species on sale were all six of Indonesia's protected freshwater turtles, as well as five non-native species that are listed on Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), giving them the same legal status as other threatened species such as tigers and rhinoceros.

Chris R. Shepherd, Senior Programme Office of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, who was the lead author of the report, said: "The open trade in protected species indicates a lack of enforcement effort and blatant disregard for the law."

Status symbols

The report says that protected turtles were openly on sale in pet stores and that dealers were fully aware that the species were protected.

The national protection or CITES listing of the species was said to be used as "a selling point" by dealers, with illegal species changing hands for twice the price of unprotected ones.

The authors wrote: "Protected species and CITES-listed species are more expensive than non-protected and non-CITES listed species. Owning animals such as these is considered somewhat of a status symbol in Indonesia.

"In fact, without efficient enforcement, listing species in CITES or protecting them under national legislation may paradoxically be having a negative effect on the conservation of these species, by creating a greater demand for the animals."

No impact assessments

TRAFFIC says that large numbers of freshwater turtles and tortoises are harvested in Indonesia, with no scientific research carried out to determine whether collecting has any impact on wild populations.

Shepherd said that those buying illegally sourced animals should be made fully aware that they are contributing to the demise of wild populations.

Shepherd added: "TRAFFIC encourages the Government of Indonesia to ensure combatting wildlife crime is given high priority, and that every effort is made to clamp down on the criminals involved in it."

The report, recommends that Indonesian authorities reduce or stop the freshwater turtle and tortoise trade until "scientifically sound" harvest quotas for the species have been determined and implemented.

Protected species on sale

The report says that the following freshwater turtles were spotted for sale in Indonesia:River terrapin, Batagur baska (CITES Appendix I); Narrow-headed softshell turtle, Chitra chitra (CITES Appendix II);

Pig-nosed turtle or Fly River turtle, Carettochelyx insculpta (now in CITES Appendix II); New Guinea Snake-necked turtle, Chelodina novaeguineaa; New Guinea Snapping turtle, Elesya novaeguineae, and the Malaysian Giant turtle, Orlitia borneensis (CITES Appendix II).

The authors said: "Numbers of CITES-listed exotic species observed in trade at any moment often exceed the import figures of these species for several years. This suggests that illegal import of CITES-listed species significantly exceeds legal import volumes.

"The large volumes of trade in non-native CITES-listed tortoises and freshwater turtles, while only small numbers are reported annually as legal imports, suggests serious regulatory problems at points of import.

"Customs and other law enforcement agencies should be more systematic in monitoring incoming trade, and treat illegal wildlife trade as a high priority for interdiction."

For more information see: Shepherd CR and V Nijman (2008) - An overview of the regulation of the freshwater turtle and tortoise pet trade in Jakarta, Indonesia. TRAFFIC Southeast Asia report, Petaling, Malaysia. ISBN 978-983-3393-08-4.