The Odd World of the Black Market Turtle Trade

September 6, 2017 | 07:58

confiscated-forest-turtles.jpgThese turtles, believed to be headed for Hong Kong, were confiscated in the Philippines. Photo: Sabine Schoppe/Katala Foundation

A semi-new trend has recently come to light in mainstream outlets: China has a burgeoning underground stock market on which living, breathing, actual turtles are bought and sold like stock.

Despite China being one of the largest countries on Earth, evidence is now mounting that the businesses participating in this illicit trade are sourcing turtles from all over east and southeast Asia, including Taiwan, the Philippines, and other islands in the region.

It’s not a totally unique occurrence: the black-market turtle trade has gone on in this region of the world for a long time.

Historically, turtles are considered a delicacy in China. This is what placed the initial economic value on them; however, now they’re not being consumed or even brought near the knife. As it’s wise to hold on to one’s money, it’s now wise to hold on to one’s turtles until such a time that the market is in an uptick and then sell them, sometimes by literal truckloads.

According to a study called Market Forces: An Examination of the Marine Turtle Trade in China and Japan, source markets started in the cities of Sanya, Qionghai and Haikou on China’s island province of Hainan. The predominant wholesale of species began with green and hawksbill turtles, but when they ran short more species came up for harvest. The initial reason for the uptick wasn’t food, but fashion. Turtles became a commodity, and their parts were used for everything. You could find earrings, pendants, combs, cigarette cases, fans, guitar picks, and birdcages made of turtle.

Yes, birdcages.

But then the trade spread. It became popular in metropolitan cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, and hopped abroad to Japan, where predominantly smuggled Chinese turtles were being sold. Once Japan was brought into the market, its own dark forces began getting into the domestic turtle trade, which led to a small but growing turtle crisis in the east Asian region.

But, as noted, many of the turtles are kept alive, and one would assume healthy, as their dwindling populations drive up the black-market value of more and more individual species.

As for the numbers, China is being mostly cooperative with investigators. The nation has recently been stepping up conservation efforts and has been willing to communicate openly with people trying to get to the bottom of the situation.

The government of Japan, as with the illegal trade of dolphins and whales, is hesitant to report its numbers on the trade, but it is promoting a national investigation. The developments of a turtle stock market in Asia are so recent, however, that not many are certain how to tackle it. What we do know is that the illegal harvesting of turtles has reached a new level, and that something needs to be done. 

33295E3200000578-0-image-a-2_1460618749772.jpgRescued sea turtles await rehabilitation and release. Photo: Associated Press 

One major development in Japan is the JBA, or Japanese Bekko Association. Bekko, in Japan, is the industry concerned with turtles and products made from them. The JBA was formed in 1992 to help the bekko industry, and has since promoted the sustainable and ethical management of their resources, as would be in their best interests. The only problem is that with populations declining, more bekko factories are leaving the association in exchange for quick, cheap access to turtle parts.

In step international governing bodies, which already protect several species of sea turtle and are now starting to ramp up efforts for non-endangered but slowly being harvested land species. As the turtle trade has spread it has spared no outlet.

49510-ekytwhkjdu-1484626268.jpgA rescued soft-shell turtle. Photo: Wildlife SOS

Conservationists have been infiltrating the trade to track poachers. While little is known at this point some turtles, products, and turtle eggs are being implanted with GPS trackers and closely monitored to see how they’re distributed throughout Asia and, ultimately, the world around.

As for the turtles being held in captivity, NGOs have been tracking them, working closely with local governments, and shutting down entire operations. Any rescued turtles are brought back where they belong.

But in the end, what’s the monetary value on a life? This thing that we’ve assigned to a creature that is just attempting to get by, eating and mating essentially its only function, as with all existence, is now a part of some odd game that humans are willing to play out of sheer vanity and greed. The best thing we can do as individuals, for now, is not support it. Only with time will we figure out what it is we’re doing to this Earth.

- Todd Allen Williams, Senior Editor

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