Who hasn’t heard of Leonardo, Donnatelo, Raphael and Michaelangelo?
This is not about the famous artists. It is about the main characters in the famous “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” flick.
The American media franchise made superheroes out of amazing ninja-trained turtles, fighting off villains, and winning the hearts of comics fanatics and cartoon televiewers.
A 2023 cartoon remake of this franchise is bringing back the characters into the people’s consciousness. But is it helping save the turtles from extinction?
In reality, the turtles and tortoises are heroes in their own rights in the wild, but many of their species are losing against the bad guys and are now in the brink of extinction because of illegal wildlife trade.
Thriving online trade
A report published online on ResearchGate titled “Online Trade of Live Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises in the Philippines,” revealed that freshwater turtles and tortoises are highly threatened by illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade.
The report, authored by Emerson Sy and Antonio Nuñez Lorenzo II of Traffic International Southeast Asia, said the trade has been thriving online, particularly on social media platforms, in recent decades. Traffic is a global non-government wildlife trade monitoring network.
The authors conducted a two-year online survey on 20 Facebook groups in 2019 and 2020 and reviewed trade data from Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora from 1990-2019 covering 30 years to explain turtle trade dynamics in the Philippines.
A total of 5,801 individuals representing 77 taxa were documented for sale on Facebook in 2019-2020.
“The 10 most commonly traded species represented 79 percent of the total quantity, and Centrochelys sulcata [African spurred tortoise] was the most offered for sale,” the research said.
Philippines, a turtle importer
Meanwhile, an analysis of 307 CITES trade records showed that the Philippines imported between 3,365 and 4,279 live turtles and tortoises of 39 species from 21 countries and territories during the 30-year period.
According to the authors, there were 23 CITES Appendix-listed species, including six species listed on Appendix I, documented for sale on Facebook but without import records from the CITES Trade Database.
They are the radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata), ploughshare or angonoka tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora), Burmese star tortoise (Geochelone platynota), black pond turtle (Geoclemys hamiltonii), Indian roofed turtle (Pangshura tecta) and spider tortoise (Pyxis arachnoides).
Poached, smuggled from the wild
Sy told the BusinessMirror via Messenger on November 8 that some of the animals may be poached from the wild, may have been recently smuggled and illegally offered in the country.
“Some are with documents but some don’t, therefore they must have been caught in the wild,” Sy said.
But what is clear, according to the authors, is that the results of the research show that wildlife trade continues to thrive on Facebook.
“Our results show that the wildlife trade continues to thrive on Facebook. Greater cooperation among conservation groups, wildlife authorities and social media platforms, and appropriate actions are urgently needed to curtail illegal online wildlife trade proliferation,” the authors said.
Turtles and tortoise
Turtles are reptiles and can be classified as amphibians as they can survive or live in both land and water. They are generally opportunistic omnivores because they feed on plants and animals with limited movements.
There are sea or marine turtles, and there are freshwater turtles.
On the other hand, tortoises are reptiles that have a large shell on their back for protection.
Unlike other turtles, tortoises live almost exclusively on land, whilst most turtles are aquatic, or live primarily in water. Most tortoises are herbivores, or feed mostly on plants, and they live in diverse habitats across the world.
According to the Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), in Southeast Asia, there are diverse species of turtles and tortoises, and they come in different shapes, sizes, and unique colors and markings.
A total of 69 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises are presently known from different Asean member states.
It comprises of six species of tortoises and 36 species of turtles, 27 species of softshell turtles and a number of species that have yet to be identified.
“Most freshwater turtles and tortoises eat snails, slugs, bugs, and other insects, but they could also feed on fruits, leaves and stalks of plants. Thus, they are considered to be omnivorous,” said ACB Executive Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim.
Turtles and tortoises play very crucial and important roles in the wild, said Lim, a licensed veterinarian and biodiversity expert.
They all play important ecosystem functions despite their seemingly boring and slow-paced way of life.
“They help control vector-borne illnesses and zoonotic diseases by feeding on insects and other small animals, including disease carriers, such as mosquitoes [larvae and adults], and snails and slugs,” she said.
Lim added that malaria, dengue and chikungunya are just some of the known diseases that are carried by mosquitoes, which can pose serious health problems without the turtles and tortoise doing their jobs.
“Snails, on the other hand, are intermediate hosts of schistosomiasis, which is transmitted from animals, such as cattle, monkeys, and dogs to humans,” she said.
Thus, removing turtles and tortoises from their natural habitats can contribute to public health concerns because of their ecological function in controlling populations of disease vectors.
Meanwhile, as plant feeders, “they also help in seed dispersal and in the natural restoration of wetland and forest ecosystems,” Lim said.
Not pets, food, or medicine
Turtles and tortoises, like their bigger cousins, the sea or marine turtles, are hunted to the brink of extinction for their meat, shell and body parts, believing that consumption of these reptiles could boost longevity or cure illnesses that Western medicine could not.
These mostly harmless and charismatic creatures are traded as aquarium pets. Some even create a special pond to mimic their habitats.
However, turtles and tortoises do not belong in an aquarium or pond because they live in the wild—the only place where they can thrive.
Asked about the issue, environmentalist Gregg Yan said turtles and tortoises have been kept or consumed for ages.
“During the Age of Sail, the giant land tortoises of the Galapagos Islands were nearly wiped out by sailors, who stored them in the [cargo] holds of their ships—without food or water—for up to a year before being eaten,” Yan told the BusinessMirror via email on November 13.
Bad media effect
According to Yan, media can also boost demand. “In the same way that the movie ‘Finding Nemo’ emptied many coral reefs of clownfish, the introduction of the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ in the 1980s made pet turtles popular,” he said.
According to Yan, for a long time, the most common was the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) in massive numbers from North America. and the Chinese softshell turtles (Pelodiscus sinensis) were imported as pets or eaten in Chinese restaurants. He added that customers can still order them in Binondo.
“Most damagingly for conservation, traders also target local turtles, including the Asian box turtle (Cuora amboinensis) and the rare Philippine forest turtle (Siebenrockiella leytensis), both of which are endangered,” he said.
Yan noted that most sting operations to net wildlife traders can be mounted and severe punishments for illegal traders trafficking tortoises and turtles, both freshwater and marine, should be issued to deter would-be-traders.
Crackdown on illegal wildlife trade
“The administration can show that it means business by cracking down on illegal wildlife trade, a leading cause of extinction of many plant and animal species,” he said.
“Since turtles and tortoises are reptiles that lay clutches of eggs, captive breeding is also a possible solution, though there are numerous loopholes that may allow traders to market wild-caught turtles or tortoises as captive-bred ones,” he opined.
“If [Filipinos] really want to keep turtles, then their best alternatives to buying and keeping Philippine turtles would be to shift to other, more prolific species like red-eared sliders. While not native to the country, they are at least not in any danger of extinction,” he said.
However, he said that great care must be taken to never release these nonnative animals in the wild, where they can become invasive species.
“The best and most affordable source for pet turtles might just be your local DENR [Department of Environment and Natural Resources] office, which might have seized or surrendered red-eared sliders for you to adopt and take care of,” he said.
Image credits: Gregg Yan