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Southeast Asia and in particular the Indo-Burma hotspot region is characterised by high species diversity and endemism in its flora and fauna. This diversity is reflected in the 90 species of chelonian fauna in the region representing 32% of the worlds diversity. In the research proposed here we follow American convention and refer to tortoises and terrapins (freshwater turtles) as turtles. The current status and distribution of many Southeast Asian turtle species are poorly known. Recent discoveries include a new species, the Sulawesi Forest Turtle Geoemyda yuwonoi in Indonesia in 1995 and the rediscovery of Heosemys leytensis in the Philippines in 2001. In Vietnam, the Asian Turtle Program (ATP) located the first wild individual of Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtle Rafetus swinhoei in 2007 and in 2006 the first capture for 60 years of a Vietnamese Pond Turtle Mauremys annamensis, highlighting the lack of knowledge common among chelonians in the region.
Despite these rare discoveries it is widely accepted Asia’s chelonian fauna is in crisis. Rapidly increasing human populations and rural development in recent decades have been accompanied by a similarly rapid reduction in habitat and wildlife. High rural poverty in the region, with 90% of the poor found in rural areas has further complicated the situation. Vietnam, the focus country for the proposed project, is one of the most densely populated countries which has resulted in human /biodiversity conflict. Forest cover is now estimated to be just one sixth of its original area, with fragmented remnant forest largely restricted to international border regions and protected areas. Wetland-dependent species have seen habitat rapidly disappear as areas are converted to agriculture for rice production or developed for industry and human habitation. Despite the large number of protected areas, 25 national parks and 60 nature reserves, remaining habitat continues to be threatened. The large and increasing human population (48 million in 1975 to 86 million people in 2008), of which over three quarters are dependent on agriculture, maintains pressure on remaining wild habitat [18, 20]. In terms of development the per capita income in Vietnam of $220 has more than quadrupled to $1,024 in 2008. This development carries additional problems with increased natural resource consumption, particularly of meat protein which requires significantly greater areas of farmland to produce.
In rural areas, wildlife, particularly easily captured species such as turtles, can provide a valuable source of income and food. The unsustainable levels of exploitation of Asian turtles for their use as food and traditional medicines has been the major cause of their decline. China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are the world’s major consumers, with development and improvement in communication and trade networks along with a booming Chinese economy escalating this since the 1980s. Consumers with additional wealth to buy foods and medicines previously beyond their means have pushed many species to the brink of extinction. The exact volume of chelonian trade to China is unknown as much is concealed due to its illegality, but in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s it was estimated that between 2.6 and 12 million turtles were being traded per annum. To a lesser extent, trade for exotic pet markets in North America, Europe and Japan have impacted on certain species such as the Burmese Star Tortoise Geochelone platynota and Roti Island Snake Neck Turtle Chelodina mccordi.
In Southeast Asia a shift from subsistence hunting of wildlife to its commercial sale into a regional/global trade has occurred over the past 15 years. The resulting rapid resource loss is often detrimental to subsistence households with limited sources of alternative income. The impact on biodiversity has been that, like other taxa, over 50% of Asia turtle species are now listed as endangered or critically endangered by IUCN. In Vietnam, 16 of the 25 native species fall into these categories (IUCN 2008). Sustained market demand has ensured that low income households, largely in remote rural areas, continue to have incentives to hunt wildlife, including turtles, to sell into the lucrative wildlife trade. With its own chelonian fauna greatly depleted, Vietnam has also evolved from a source state for wildlife to a transit state, with many of the turtle confiscations in recent years being taxa traded to China but originating from other South East Asian countries . Recent observations attribute reductions in chelonian trade volumes and species diversity in Chinese markets to the depletion of wild populations. Some species once common in the trade are now rare with others already considered commercially extinct . As wild populations decrease, market prices of many species have increased and this has prompted efforts to farm some taxa, but their slow growth combined with low fecundity and specific ecological requirements has meant that wild capture remains the only economically viable source for many species. A few exceptions such as the Chinese Soft-shell turtle Pelodiscus sinensis and the Chinese Pond Turtle Chinemys reevesii have been farmed intensively for many years but only meet part of the demand for specific foods.
Recognition of the extent of the threats facing Asia’s chelonians has seen increased research and conservation attention in recent years. Laws have been strengthened to offer greater protection, in particular improvement of CITES regulations restricting international trade. Activities ranging from enforcement and confiscations to assurance colonies established for priority species have been developed. However, for most species little research has been conducted on population status, distribution or specific threats. Furthermore, present conservation activities addressing issues such as habitat loss and trade almost exclusively overlook. As such the training in necessary skills for research and conservation focused on tortoise and freshwater turtles is of paramount importance. A greater number of individuals with the necessary skills is needed if gaps in currently knowledge are to be quickly filled and informed conservation decisions and actions taken.