Zoologists from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka joined Lim in Singapore last week for a first-ever regional workshop to discuss ways to protect and care for the turtles and tortoises.
A hot topic of discussion was the illegal trade in wild turtles and tortoises, with the zoologists warning much of it was going unchecked and open to corruption.
Veterinarian Karn Lekagul, from the Dusit Zoo in Bangkok, said tens of thousands of turtles were smuggled through Thailand each year. "There is a trade of turtles from Indonesia and Malaysia through Thailand and to Cambodia, Laos, and possibly China," Karn said, adding that laws governing the trade needed to be tightened.
"We have caught some of the smugglers but I think the law is too lax."
His comments were echoed by Lim, who said the seizure two years ago at Singapore's Changi Airport of 2,300 star tortoises that had been smuggled from India was just the tip of the iceberg.
"A lot of smuggling is going on," he said. "There needs to be policing, more stringent enforcement of laws and heavier penalties for smugglers. In Singapore the penalties are still too light, not a strong enough deterrent."
The zoologists said that confiscating turtles and tortoises from smugglers often caused further problems. Dusit Zoo's Karn said that in Thailand, government authorities frequently mishandled the confiscated animals.
"We've seen instances of officials not knowing any better and dumping the animals," he said. "Sometimes they see they are land turtles, so they release them into a forest. But there are many types of forests and some turtles can't live in that type."
If they reach a zoo instead, other problems arise. "When 2,000 tortoises land on our lap it really stretches out our facilities," Lim said.
"It's the same problem faced by other countries. (There is a lack of) facilities, manpower and funds."
The issue of handling confiscated turtles was a key focus of last week's workshop, with William Holmstrom from the Wildlife Conservation Society of New York giving expert advice to the zoologists. "When they're collected for the market they're held in big bins, they're piled up on top of each other. They're held sometimes for weeks or months before they reach the final destination and so many of them are very sick," Holmstrom said. "So what we try to do is give people the tools to evaluate the turtles that they receive from these confiscations and help the ones they can and distribute them to places where they can be cared for or ideally released."
Aside from the trade of these animals for pets, Lim said the belief within some Asian communities that turtle meat had medicinal value had also fuelled the trade. "Sometimes they are consumed as an aphrodisiac, sometimes it's because of health, for example to lower the blood pressure. Some, like the golden coin turtle, they believe consumption will bring them good luck," he said.
And sometimes they are eaten simply as a delicacy. "If you go to the (Singapore) Chinatown wet market I think you can find the Malayan River terrapin sold for turtle soup," Lim said.
Holmstrom said dissuading people from eating turtles was extremely difficult. "Especially in China, where eating turtles is thought to have medicinal advantages. Some species are thought to cure cancer and some species are thought to promote old age," he said. "I don't think we can force changes in cultural practices but we can make people aware of the problem," Holmstrom said. "So it's spreading the word and making people care for wildlife and realise that once they're gone they'll never come back."
4th April 2004
Press release by the Asian Turtle Conservation Network