Turtles now world's most threatened vertebrates

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Turtles and tortoises are now the most endangered group of vertebrate animals, with more than half of their 328 species threatened with extinction, according to a new report.

Their populations are being depleted by unsustainable hunting, both for food and for use in traditional Chinese medicine, by large-scale collection for the pet trade, and by the widespread pollution and destruction of their habitats, according to the study Turtles In Trouble, produced by a coalition of turtle conservation groups.

The result is that their plight has never been greater, and the world's 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles will become extinct in a few decades without concerted conservation efforts, the report says.

Asia is the worst affected region; of the 25 most endangered turtles, more than two thirds (17) are from Asia, a result of decades of massive exploitation. "For example, in just one market in Dhaka, Bangladesh, close to 100,000 wild caught turtles are butchered for consumption during a one-day religious holiday each year," the report adds.

It goes on: "Furthering the problem is a lucrative international black market trade in pet turtles and tortoises that has escalated prices of some of the more rare species into the tens of thousands of dollars. Rumours even exist that some of the rarest Asian species are now commanding prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars."

The world's 328 species are divided into 263 fresh water and terrestrial turtles, and 58 species of tortoises (plus seven sea turtles which are not covered in detail by the report). With up to 54 per cent of the total considered threatened, turtles and tortoises are at a much higher risk of extinction, the report says, than other vertebrates such as birds, mammals, sharks and rays or even amphibians – which are usually considered the most endangered grouping.

"Turtles are disappearing fast and we are dealing with one of the most significant wildlife crises of our lifetime," says Rick Hudson, President of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA). Several species are down to just a handful of remaining individuals.

No. 1 on the list is the Pinta Island tortoise, one of the Galapagos tortoises species that contributed to Charles Darwin's theories on "natural selection". Sadly, only a single male of this species, "Lonesome George", remains alive today, and the report comments: "Ironically, Darwin and other travellers often ate many of the islands' tortoises and released rats, goats and other animals, which significantly contributed to their decline."

Close behind is the Red River giant softshell turtle of China and Vietnam, weighing more than 250lbs with a shell more than three feet long. With only four animals left, the stakes have never been higher. Some species are in danger of disappearing before scientists even find out where they live. Zhou's box turtle (the 6th most endangered) has occasionally appeared in the turtle markets of China, but to date no one has located a wild population.

The report, Turtles in Trouble, is at www.iucn-tftsg.org/top-25-2011.

Five under threat

Sulawesi forest turtle This semi-aquatic animal is endemic to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi and was originally used in Chinese food in the early 1990s. Habitat destruction has reduced the forest cover on which it depends for survival.

River terrapin With males exhibiting striking seasonal breeding colours, these unusual and attractive turtles have now all but vanished.

Ploughshare tortoise One of the rarest tortoises in the world, there are now only a few hundred left in Madagascar.

Roti island snake-necked turtle This freshwater turtle is found on the tiny island of Roti in south-eastern Indonesia.

Geometric tortoise This small species is found in low-lying sandy areas of the Western Cape in South Africa.

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