Illegal trade in Malayan Box Turtles continues

07 January 2009 | News story

The Malayan Box Turtle is disappearing across Malaysia despite a ban on its export, finds a new report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network and a joint programme between IUCN and WWF. The turtles are in high demand in East Asia for their meat and for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

The Malayan Box Turtle is a subspecies of the widespread South Asian Box Turtle (Cuora amboinensis),  which is considered the commonest freshwater turtle in South-East Asia, but despite this, and even its tolerance of manmade artificial habitats, the species is in peril due to over-exploitation finds the new report, Science in CITES: The biology and ecology of the Southeast Asian Box Turtle Cuora amboinensis and its uses and trade in Malaysia.

In 2005, an export ban on Malayan Box Turtles was introduced by Department of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN), the government’s wildlife agency in Peninsular Malaysia, and similar exports bans exist in Sabah and Sarawak.

Following the ban, exports of turtles for the pet trade in Japan, Europe and the USA apparently ceased, but the latest TRAFFIC report found widespread evidence of continuing illegal export, mainly to Hong Kong, China and, to a lesser extent, Singapore.

“A harvest survey at two traders in Selangor, for example yielded 385 Malayan Box Turtles in a 38 day period; multiplying by the number of known illegal suppliers of turtles gives a conservative estimate of almost 22,000 animals illegally exported per year from Malaysia,” says Dr Sabine Schoppe, the author of the report.

The vast majority of Malayan Box Turtles illegally exported are adults, which poses a particular threat to this species, which has a slow reproductive cycle, only maturing late, and producing a limited number of eggs.

“There is no commercial breeding of Asian Box Turtle in Malaysia or elsewhere because it is expensive, time-consuming and economically unfeasible,” says Schoppe. “To meet demand, animals are being taken from the wild at an unsustainable rate, which has to be addressed or they will disappear from the Malaysian countryside. Simple maths leads you to the obvious conclusion: stop the over-exploitation of Malayan Box Turtles, before we lose them.”

"Turtles around the world are in terrible trouble due to overharvesting and habitat loss," says Anders G.J. Rhodin, Chair of IUCN's Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. "This latest report confirms that even some species that have previously been considered relatively common are now under severe threat. Similar patterns of overharvesting are occurring worldwide, even in the USA, where recent efforts to halt the turtle trade in some states (Texas, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Florida) have generated public debate and political action. Turtles need all the help they can get if they are to survive into our future. CITES needs to consider listing all turtles on their Appendices to better monitor their trade and help avoid extinctions. All species of sea turtles and terrestrial tortoises are already listed by CITES--it is time to also list all species of freshwater turtles before it's too late."

There are indications from every State in Peninsular Malaysia that populations of the Malayan Box Turtle are over-exploited or even locally extinct. According to local people, Malayan Box Turtles are rarely observed in the wild compared to only 5-10 years ago. The Asian Box Turtle was listed as Vulnerable to extinction by IUCN in 2000.

“It is nowadays difficult to find a Malayan Box Turtle in the wild near residential or agricultural areas,” says Azrina Abdullah, Director of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia. “Immediate action is needed to regulate exploitation for the future sustainable management of the Malayan Box Turtle.”

To help restore populations of Malayan Box Turtles, TRAFFIC recommends a total harvest ban or the strict implementation by PERHILITAN of the existing export ban for one generation to allow numbers to recover; conduct a non-detrimental finding on the Malayan Box Turtles, improvement of trade control measures, such as development of a bribe-proof CITES permit system; better international co-operation between government agencies in the region for controlling illegal wildlife trade, particularly at border crossings; and regular inspections and appropriate law enforcement actions taken against traders, markets and pet and aquarium shops trading illegally by relevant government authorities.

More information

  • Azrina Abdullah, Director, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia (in Malaysia) tel: +603 78803940, E-mail: azrinatsea@myjaring.net
  • Richard Thomas, Communications Co-ordinator, TRAFFIC. Tel: +44 1223 279068, mob + 44 752 6646 216. E-mail richard.thomas@traffic.org

About TRAFFIC

TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, works to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature. TRAFFIC is a joint programme of IUCN and WWF.