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Published September 15, 2010 09:08 AM

Turtles in trouble

More than a third of the world's 280 freshwater turtle species are threatened with extinction, according to a new analysis by Conservation International (CI).


CI's latest assessment, undertaken as part of World Water Week, explains that the catastrophic decline of the world's freshwater turtles is primarily being caused by the unsustainable harvesting of turtles and their eggs for food, and for the lucrative pet trade. Turtles are highly valued in Asia, particularly in China, due to their perceived medicinal properties, and a single turtle can fetch a high price on the market. Yet this exploitation is driving many vulnerable freshwater turtles towards extinction.

Dr Peter van Dijk, the director of CI’s Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Conservation Programme, explains how such harvesting impacts long-lived turtle populations. "These are animals that take 15 to 20 years to reach maturity and then live for another 30 to 40 years, putting a clutch of eggs in the ground every year. They play the odds, hoping that in that 50 year lifetime, some of their hatchlings will somehow evade predators and go on to breed themselves. But if you take these animals out before they've reached 15 and can reproduce, it all ends there."

Many of these river-dwelling turtles are further threatened by major changes to their habitat, such as from damming for hydroelectricity or mining. The dramatic decline in the status of the world’s freshwater turtles is perhaps evidence that humanity's management of freshwater ecosystems is failing the wildlife dependent upon such habitats.

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