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Friday, February 25, 2011



The other day we posted an article `The Shameful Shell Game` which originally appeared in HerpDigest. The latest edition of HerpDigest includes the following letter:

Some Correction and Opinions on the Article "The Shameful Shell Game" From Mark Feldman of New Zealand. (Editor-Mr. Feldman is a turtle researcher who has lately been doing a lot of research on the chemical inducement to turtle egg-laying. He has been apply to do this research with the help of the Turtle Farms mentioned in the article who supply him with turtles and space to do set up his lab. If this makes him a biased or expert who can respond to the errors, and there were errors, is us to you, the reader.)

Dear HerpDigest,

Just recently HerpDigest published an article called the "Shameful Shell Game." Many facts in the article were outdated and there were errors of interpretation as well.

1. ".there are 80 turtle farms in Louisiana alone." There were actually 48 farms still in business in early 2010 but probably less now because they are going out of business at a rapid rate. They are going out of business because the Chinese are purchasing fewer turtles each year as the build up their breeding stock and compete directly with the American farms. American turtle farmers that took out bank loans to enter the "boom" during the 1980s-early 1990s when the Chinese were buying hatchlings for over a dollar each (price now around 20 cents) have suffered the most. The older farms, with no loans and a wealth of experience have done better.

2. ".these farms are not self sufficient and thousands of adult sliders are removed from the wild each year to replace senile breeding stock."

The situation is actually that there is a glut of breeding stock. This is why a shipment of 40 tons of ADULT red-ears was sent to Vietnam this year. (Editor-Which Vietnam refused and send back to the U.S.- Sliders are illegal to export to Vietnam and condition of turtles was unacceptable.) These turtles were breeders from the USA that were surplus and no longer wanted. The decline in the industry and bankruptcy of the farms has resulted in the release of many thousands of adult breeders and the butchering of others for food to be sold in the Chinese communities in NY and California.
Turtles do not become "senile." They breed into old age. I have seen thousands of animals that have been on farms for over 40 years and are still laying several clutches a year.
Turtles are resourceful animals and escape frequently from turtle farms. If you tour wild areas around the farms you will note large numbers of turtles on the roadsides during nesting season. It is true that these animals do have the potential to alter the genetic pool of the local turtles. Whether this is more than an academic problem remains to be seen.

"Today over 200,000 farmed pet turtles continue to be sold in this country each
year and nearly ten million are shipped to international pet markets."

The legitimate trade in over 4 inch farmed turtles in the USA is about 60,000 per year. Annual exports of hatchlings vary widely. Using the LEMIS date (which is the best we have but not really accurate) there were 14.8 million exports last year but almost 2/3 of those were for the food trade in Asia, not for pets. (Editor-Question where did those 14.8 million turtles come from the farms or wild, as their is a large business in catching wild turtles and sending them to China according to Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity).

4. "Eggs taken from the wild be hatched and the young will be sold in any number of venues."

Taking eggs from the wild is seldom worthwhile. Such eggs need to be gathered within the first 24 hours or after three weeks to avoid mortality. It is far more efficient to use farmed animals where the hatching rate is 85%. Hatchling turtles that end up being sold illegally in the USA almost always come from back-yard farmers that produce a thousand hatchlings or less a year. No big farmers would risk their business to get involved in this illegal trade.

5. "The IUCN lists this turtle among the 100 most dangerous."

This is true but ill deserved. Red-ears are NOT super turtles. Like any other animal they have strict requirements in order to survive and reproduce. Buddhist countries like Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam buy large numbers of hatchlings to be released during religious ceremonies. This has to cause problems; if you release a million hatchling red-ears a year there's bound to be an effect even if they can't reproduce or survive for very long.

6. "They are on every continent..and even islands like New Zealand, the Bahamas and Cuba now support feral populations of red-eared sliders."

There are no reproducing feral populations of red-ears in New Zealand. Adults that are released can survive for a few years but inevitably die from shell disease and starvation because our winters are too warm and summers too cool. There are tiny areas north of Brisbane, Australia where the environment is more suitable for red-ears and they may reproduce there in artificial impoundments. However, the bulk of the country is too dry for the eggs to hatch. This is why Australian turtles have hard shelled eggs.

There are areas in Europe (Southern France) where red-ears can reproduce and do compete to variable degrees with the native pond turtle but there are many other areas in Europe where that is not the case. Again, red-ears are not super turtles; they usually end up surviving the longest in ponds in parks and where local turtle populations have been extinguished already.

7. "When the European Union banned the importation of red-eared sliders the turtle farmers circumvented this and cross-bred them with yellow bellied sliders and shipped their customized, genetically designed young turtles to Europe."

There's some truth here. With the ban of red-ears in the EU, American turtle farmers began exporting yellow-bellied and cumberland sliders. These animals do interbreed with red-ears and crosses are produced but it is not purposeful since the pure bred yellow bellied and cumberland sliders can be legally imported into the EU anyway. Most farmers isolate their cumberlands and yellow bellies from the red-ears because they are of higher value in the pet trade.

"Based on the hybrid swarms of hatchling map turtles produced and sold by turtle farmers we know that Graptemys readily hybridize."

It is true that map turtles interbreed on turtle farms (they can even produce off-spring with red-ears) but it is also true that they interbreed in the wild.

The real issue that needs to be addressed is whether or not people are going to be allowed to keep turtles as pets. If we want to have a society where people can have pet turtles, than turtle farms are the most efficient way to produce them. On a farm 85% of the eggs are hatched successfully but in the wild less than 5% of the eggs survive long enough to make it to the water. A well run turtle farm requires no additions to the adult stock since they can produce their own breeders in 4-5 years at very little additional expense. Breeders taken from the wild require 2-3 years to acclimate to the captive environment of a turtle farm and lay few, if any, eggs in that time. So farmers have little to lose by breeding their own stock.

The state of Louisiana has developed a protocol to prevent the transmission of salmonella via hatchling turtles. It is very effective. However, it does not prevent a pet turtle from getting salmonella from the food (raw chicken) it is fed or proximity to other pets (chickens, donkeys, cows, etc). Recent attempts to eliminate salmonella from chicken eggs in the USA may help to solve this problem.

It would be a real shame if young people could not keep pet turtles. I'm sure that all of us had herps as pets when we were young and that has added a great deal to the quality of our lives. It is my view that we should ban the wholesale capture of wild turtles throughout the United States and support active turtle farming so we can do as little damage to the natural populations as possible.

Mark Feldman
Kerikeri, New Zealand

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