More than half of all 360 turtle and tortoise species face imminent extinction, according to a comprehensive study published by a group of 51 conservationists, that includes Hofstra University Professor of Biology Russell Burke. The findings of this International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group appear this week in the scientific journal Current Biology. Despite their grim prediction, the authors provide recommendations that may reverse the decline and save many species. One such global conservation strategy involves ending the pet trade and the trade in wild turtles for food.
Dr. Burke, a foremost expert on terrapins and urban ecology, said: “Turtles are ecologically, socially, and economically important. Yet we manage them so poorly that many species will be extinct before the end of the century if we don’t change our attitudes toward them.”
Hundreds of thousands of turtles and tortoises are collected for the wildlife trade every year. They are a long-lived and slow-growing species, which means they can’t reproduce fast enough to replenish their populations taken from the wild.
“A long, slow life trajectory worked for them for millions of years, but it doesn’t serve them well in the modern world in the face of humans poaching them and destroying their habitat,” said Craig Stanford, lead author of the paper. He is also a professor of biological sciences at University of Southern California and chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission – Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group.
Dr. Burke has been involved with turtle conservation for more than two decades. He and his students – both undergraduate and graduate – have been researching turtle behavior at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, NY.
“Terrapins are harmless, attractive animals that play important roles in the stability of the salt marshes that protect our shorelines,” he said. “Our work provides an example of a well-studied turtle population that is declining right in front of us, in a well-protected national park. The protections we provide are clearly not enough. We need active management.”
The authors of the paper urge governments to enforce existing laws and effectively implement the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates the international trade of endangered and threatened species to prevent overexploitation.
In addition to ending the wildlife trade, they argue there are other actions that would protect turtles and tortoises. The paper identifies 16 hotspots around the world that are home to a wide diversity of species and where protection of remaining natural areas would make a significant difference. The authors say ecotourism in these areas may be a model that could benefit both humans and the species living near them.
Dr. Burke explains that while showing wildlife declines is difficult, “showing the causes of those declines is even harder. It takes a lot of intensive field work. We accomplish that in Jamaica Bay with the help of many Hofstra students and local citizen scientists every year. Part of my work these days is focused on ways to streamline the process, to make it easier for non-scientists to get involved and monitor turtle populations so we can recognize problems before they become irreversible.”