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Asian Turtle Crisis–A Personal Perspective

Contributing Editor Jordan Schaul shares a personal experience. As a young hobbyist and private collector of native and exotic herpetiles in the early 90’s he was unaware of the impact the pet turtle trade had and continues to have on aquatic turtle conservation–an unfortunate impact that has led to the current Asian turtle crisis.  As a kid I...

Contributing Editor Jordan Schaul shares a personal experience. As a young hobbyist and private collector of native and exotic herpetiles in the early 90’s he was unaware of the impact the pet turtle trade had and continues to have on aquatic turtle conservation–an unfortunate impact that has led to the current Asian turtle crisis. 

As a kid I collected aquatic turtles. At one time I had an indoor terrarium for well over two dozen of these shelled poikilotherms. 

My father helped me build the home-made turtle “habitat.”  The “furnished” enclosure was spacious and complete with a large water feature.  A noisy pump inside the pool ran 24/7, but an occasional splash from a turtle sliding or falling off a piece of driftwood into the water interrupted the rhythmicity of the sound created by the pump’s impeller and the outflow of water trickling into the pool.  

An endangered yellow Asian pond turtle (Mauremys mutica) (NGS stock photo).

The water was crystal clear. At a depth of about two feet,  one could see fish darting underneath the floating vegetation–including water lettuce and water hyacinth that had been partially chomped on by hungry turtles.

We had constructed the rough dimensions of a bed frame to provide a spacious terrestrial area for the turtles and hopefully a designated nesting site of a mixed soil and sand substrate.

A perimeter wall was erected to confine the turtles, many of which can climb fairly rugged topography. 

The light blue, 45 gallon, kidney-shaped, fiberglass pond was sunk in the middle of a moisture-resistant plywood board. Green carpet turf  was stapled to the plywood and surrounded the pond to provide a naturalistic aesthetic. The easy-to-clean artificial surface offered traction for the bony and cartilaginous-shelled reptiles. The carpet facilitated their lateral movements. They need to grip on to something once they climbed out of the water to bask under the artificial UV light that hovered over a section of the enclosure.

The area surrounding the pond was home to a few terrestrial species. I had several Eastern box turtles and semi-aquatic Asiatic pond turtles.

As a young private collector I knew little of modern day curation.  I failed to comply with conventions of exhibiting animals of proper zoogeographic designations together.  You should never mix Asian and North American species. It is uncouth. 

The heated pool was also a refuge for painted turtles, red-eared sliders, map turtles, Florida cooters, chicken turtles, a brackish water  species known as the diamondback terrapin and other unmistakable North American members of the superorder Chelonia.  

I also had the good fortune to work with many exotic and native turtle species from the Old World as an aquarist at a pet store–a Petland franchise in the Midwest.  I was only 14 years old, but I had the privledge to work with some fairly rare turtle species.

It wasn’t until much later as a zoo keeper that I realized that the pet store was a temporary home for a very impressive collection of aquatic herpetiles. The cold-blooded livestock rivaled some small and even regional zoo collections. I also didn’t realize the tragic impact the pet trade had on the conservation of aquatic turtles world wide, and particularly in Asia. There is an ongoing crisis in Asia.

As I rearranged the rock work in the store’s 220 gallon terrarium with perhaps unnecessary frequency, side-necked turtles and large softshells climbed over one and other in an effort to get out of my way. Hatchling crocodilians scrambled over one turtle carapace after another. The sound of caiman chirping was broken by crashing carapaces of turtles. Their shells rolled in synchronicity with appendages flailing to one direction and then another.  The tank was often too congested to permit much swimming. But I was fascinated by the different shapes and sizes of these semi-aquatic and aquatic animals.   Many are also more intellectually gifted than you might think.

And the animals were well cared for. The water was cleaned as water was pumped through expensive biological and physical filtration equiptment which circulated large volumes of water at a frantic pace. It also aided in the oxygenation of the pool for fishes–aerating the water to some degree through turbulence. 

The turtles received expensive commercial pellets prepared specifically for turtles along with feeder goldfish and on unfortunate occasions other unintended tropical ornamental fish. 

Most of the turtles were essentially permanent residents–too expensive for the typical consumer interested in a common species. Red-eared sliders, for example were priced fairly cheap and often taken home on impulse with a twenty gallon tank in hand. Nowadays you can buy a commercially packaged terrarium set-up with all the “necessary” accessories for life support and provisions for the design of a naturalistic enclosure.   

The pet trade in Emydid turtles (family Emydidae), a group of a related aquatic turtles represented by nearly 50 species–almost all of which can be found in the Western Hemisphere–continues to impede conservation efforts. Although many species are now captive bred, pet owners frequently release turtles into the wild expanding the ranging of common species which in turn compete with native turtle species that may be threatened or even critically endangered.   

Although pet stores may have less of an impact on wild-born turtle populations in the Western Hemisphere an Asian turtle crisis persists. Legislation has prevented some losses through international trade, but a lot of damage is inflicted as a result of both the consumption trade and unregulated pet trade of Asian species and because of dams built for hydroelectric power plants.

According to the Asian Turtle Conservation Network, “Weak enforcement, low awareness, traditional attitudes towards turtles and other wildlife, too few national experts or people willing to invest the time and energy into conserving turtles, and a host of other factors pose significant obstacles to progress. Moreover, loss of habitat resulting from forest destruction leave surviving wild populations under  intense pressure form hunters and collectors.”

Back when I was a teenager people were unaware of the plight of Asian turtle populations.  Today I urge young people to read about the plight of these ancient and charismatic vertebrates before they seek out an opportunity to purchase something just because it looks interesting or sounds “cool” to add to a collection.  For the sake of turtles, visit your local zoo, aquarium or nature center and learn what you can do to help save them.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: