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Rare turtles rescued from Hong Kong market

Update: May, 17/2006 - 00:00

Rare turtles rescued from Hong Kong market


Soup mix: These lucky turtles were transported to the Turtle Conservation Centre in Cuc Phuong National Park. — Photo courtesy of Asian Turtle Programme

Thirty-four rare pond turtles were returned to Viet Nam last week, marking the first time that smuggled wildlife was repatriated to the country.

The turtles, critically endangered Vietnamese pond turtles, Mauremys annamensis, were transferred on Cathay Pacific’s regular flight from Hong Kong to Noi Bai International Airport.

The turtles, which included two adults rescued from Hong Kong markets and 32 offspring born in captivity, were returned by the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, a private Hong Kong-based foundation that cares for rescued wildlife and works in close co-operation with the Hong Kong Agriculture Fisheries Conservation Department.

Viet Nam is home to 25 native species of tortoises and freshwater turtles, earning the country recognition as one of the region’s most biologically diverse hotspots for chelonians.

Among this impressive diversity of species is the Vietnamese pond turtle, an endemic species native to lowland ponds and marshes in central Viet Nam, and found no where else in the world, according to the Asian Turtle Conservation Network (ATCN).

Last recorded in the wild in 1939, the Vietnamese pond turtle has since become rare as a result of unsustainable hunting and trade to meet the demand of export markets, as well as loss of its lowland habitat, mostly to agricultural development.

"The international trade of turtles has all but wiped out wild populations of many species throughout the country," says Douglas Hendrie, a conservationist living in Viet Nam who specialises in freshwater turtles.

"Small populations of turtles may remain in some parks and protected areas," says Hendrie. "But even these remaining turtles are under tremendous pressure from hunters and collectors, feeding the insatiable demand from markets in China."

Viet Nam’s new wildlife protection law for the first time specifically lists the Vietnamese pond turtle as a protected species that may not be bought, sold, traded, or consumed without a permit from the government, ATCN reports.

The Vietnamese pond turtle is also listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) banning export of the species without a specific CITES permit from the national government.
But Hendrie says that he would like to see all of Viet Nam’s freshwater turtles protected under the law with the exception of the Chinese soft-shell turtle, Pelodiscus sinensis.

The IUCN Global Red List of Threatened Species lists more than half of Viet Nam’s turtle species as critically endangered or endangered, however only seven species are protected under Vietnamese law.

Hendrie also stressed the need for more stringent punishment of violators of Viet Nam’s wildlife protection laws.

"In most cases, the trade of wildlife in Viet Nam is not treated as a serious crime, despite the lasting impact that hunting and trade has clearly had on the country’s natural heritage."

"Traders rarely get more than a fine or a slap on the wrist for breaking the law," Hendrie says.

As a result, most conservationists agree that there are few deterrents to discourage people from engaging in the illegal wildlife business.

Last week’s returnees and their offspring were transferred to the Turtle Conservation Centre (TCC) at Cuc Phuong National Park where the government runs a conservation programme for critically endangered species, including the Vietnamese pond turtle. "Eventually, the turtles may be released in central Viet Nam where they originated," says Bui Dang Phong, manager of the TCC for Cuc Phuong National Park.

Phong says he is elated to see that the turtles finally made it back to Viet Nam.

The Vietnamese pond turtles are undoubtedly ignorant of the journey they have made. From the marshes of Quang Nam Province to the markets of China, only to be plucked from a crate destined for sure demise, and eventually repatriated with their native land. Though their journey is not over, the lucky returnees and their 32 young that have never set foot in their native marshes of central Viet Nam, are perhaps happy to be immersed in the cool waters of their new temporary home at the Cuc Phuong turtle centre.

The return was co-ordinated and carried out by the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden of Hong Kong and Cuc Phuong National Park with the support of the National Forest Protection Department of Viet Nam.

Logistics and technical support in Viet Nam was provided by the Asian Turtle Program and the Humane Society International. — VNS

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