200 million years of turtle evolution, and now the turtles need our help. Turtles are adapted to specialized areas of land and environmental conditions. Many of the turtles that populate the wild are in danger of becoming extinct. We are making efforts to conserve the turtle populations all over the world. Part of the battle is gaining compassion for turtles. Turtles may be armed with an outer shell, but the effects caused by humans has no protection. The turtle conservation crisis is likely more widespread than the well publicized amphibian decline phenomenon. General conservation issues are: habitat alterations, human use and conservation efforts.
Turtles are thought of by the general public as indestructible. Turtles may be smart, but are far from indestructible. Many people remember turtles being a part of their lives as children; now the turtle is hard to find unless found on the the road as a fatality. The box turtle of North America is not common in many parts in which they thrived just ten years ago. Being a terrestrial turtle mostly in the area in which they need to thrive and survive is much larger and diverse than that of it's aquatic cousin. The box turtle is adored by all. The pet trade has made the box turtle a hit and the demand has hurt wild populations. Largely the turtles to be seen in the wild today are the "living-dead" populations, these turtles are either too young to breed or too old to reproduce, due to exploitation.
Habitat alterations are a huge problem in the turtle population decline. Exploitation, degradation, fragmentation, and subsidized predators are all issues the box turtle faces. Due to the need for land to support the growing human population, many other species must be forgotten and sacrificed. Land is converted for farm use and divided up for housing development. As a result, roads must be built to get to these areas. The cycle can be very vicious and have a domino effect once it gets started.
Exploitation is the number one stress on wild populations. The biology of turtles tied to exploitation is; low metabolic rates which are called endothermal. They can be collected during seasonal abundance and kept alive for long periods with minimal care. The slow indeterminate growth rate, delayed sexual maturity and a long reproductive life span are characteristics in which play a role in turtle exploitation. Turtles are widely used throughout the world. Box turtles are taken from the wild and shipped over seas, mostly to Europe and Asia for the pet trade and food use. Many turtles and tortoises in Europe and Asia are threatened with extinction and now are protected. Unfortunately, the way in which a species is chosen for harvest is popularity.
Habitat destruction is another factor in the decrease of box turtle populations. Dynamic ecosystems are able to support the full range of the naturally occurring process that turtle populations require for their long-term survival. Fresh water wetlands around the world are among the most endangered of ecosystems. About 53% of 159 million areas of wetlands in the U.S. have been lost. Wetland buffer zones are established in some states. This is a width of protected terrestrial habitat surrounding a wetland, and is designed to maintain water quality. About 76% of the world's primary forests were destroyed by the late 1980's. The Ornate Box Turtle's wild population is declining due to the conversion of prairie land and grassland into pastures and farming. Habitat degradation is the process by which habitats are diminished in their ability to support populations of native wildlife.
Habitat fragmentation is to be one of the greatest threats to regional and global biodiversity. Box turtles are especially vulnerable to fragmentation. Box turtles need large amounts of land to live and function naturally. Females tend to stay within the same patch of land, where as males tend to wander or migrate. Many times a road is built through the middle of these areas. This is a serious issue for turtles. The turtle needs to cross the road, but often is either hit by a car or drops into the drainage system and spend their last days there because they cannot climb out.
Predation is the completion of the ecosystematic circle. Natural predators like skunks, foxes, large birds and raccoons are not posing any new threat; on the other hand,domestic pets like our friendly house cats or man's best friend the dog pose new threats to box turtles. Human presence often increases the population of certain wild pests that already threaten box turtles like raccoons, raven and crows. The attraction to human dwelling, because of garbage, gives these animals more opportunity for food plus more opportunity to have more young. Predation is part of the circle of life and is something that is not in our control, yet we do have some control over certain things like our domestic animal companions.
Human use of turtles can be traced back to early human excavations. First and for most humans use turtles for food, as they can be easily captured and conveniently stored as a source of protein. During the time of pre- to early America ships would stop at islands during a long journey and round up large tortoises to bring on board. This was an easy stored source of fresh meat. Tortoises can survive for months without food and water so the maintenance to the sailors was minimal. In World War II, some 90% of tortoises around Bulgaria where collected and shipped to German restaurants. Commercial trapping of the snapping turtle was intense in the 60's and 70's in Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas, as the meat was used in turtle soup throughout the southern U.S. Gopher tortoises were used as an important food source during the Great Depression. In the 80's, one turtle ranch estimated collecting 25,000 to 30,000 wild caught turtles that were sold every 1 to 2 weeks primarily food. The list goes on.
Many cultures view turtles to have special medicinal or religious qualities. Medicinal use has increased due to trade. According to the Roman Catholic Church, the turtle is classified as a fish, so they are consumed in large quantities during Lent all over the world. In Central America turtle eggs are thought to be aphrodisiacs. Many religions respect the life of a turtle. Some native American beliefs are that we were created by water and the world is held up out of the water on a turtle's back. Unfortunately, the most destructive beliefs are those of more mainstream religions.
Surveys by the Pet Industry and Veterinary Associations estimated 1.5% to 3.2% of the general public in the U.S. owns a pet turtle. Since most people have more than one, there might be 2.5 million to 15 million pet turtles in the U.S. alone; 35%obtained from the wild, 50% purchased from a pet store. The U.S. imports 30,000 turtles a year. 150 turtle ranches all stocked from the wild, and supplied the U.S. market with ten million turtles every year. 100,000 box turtles are exported each year along with thousands of other turtles. Europe originated the concerns of over harvesting of the turtle population, and had the first control on trade. As more turtles become threatened or protected, imports switched to non listed species under CITES predominately to the American box turtles, but not for long. The North American box turtle is in trouble and will no longer be available for the pet trade unless breeding programs are established.
Farming of turtles is suggested as a means to produce food and remove hunting pressure on wild populations. The key may be how the use and intrinsic value of turtles can be used as a tool for their conservation. Although farming turtles is not an agreeable way of raising turtles for human use, captive breeding(which is much different than farming) will replace the need to collect from the wild populations. The only problems is until it is illegal to collect turtles from the wild, it is much cheaper to buy a wild collected turtle then from a breeder who puts a lot of time, effort and care in to the raising of hatchlings turtles.
Forming coalitions to conserve turtles that will maximize human capital by linking scientists, conservationist, turtle fanciers, zoos, museums, educational institutions and concerned individuals with the local communities that share their land with turtles to make efforts to conserve. Zoos and aquariums inspire enthusiasm, interest and compassion for wildlife and their habitats in a manner that is truly unique to those institutions.
We have discussed only a small fraction of the problems concerning turtles all over the world. Habitat alterations and human use are undeniable problems. Conservation efforts are under way, but only so much can be done with what money is donated and volunteer hours spent. What can you do to help? Get involved with the preservation of the landscape and wetlands. Find out what co-habitats with you on your land and keep a watchful eye on our friend the turtle as he crosses the road.