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From -The Humane Society of the United States Factsheet

photo: Eduardo Castro

Turtles are one of the most endearing and symbolic of America’s native wildlife. Turtles not only fascinate each generation of children, who find endless wonders under those hard shells, but they also continue to serve as a timeless role model in children’s literature: the slow and steady turtle, whose patient progress always wins out against a fast but feckless competitor.

Yet our connection to turtles hasn’t prevented humans from abusing the creatures. In fact, many land, freshwater, and sea turtles are facing imminent threats to their survival because of human activities. Turtles are substantially affected by habitat loss and the pet trade, not to mention the food and traditional medicine industries. Many turtle species also suffer from the effects of pollution as well as from the destructive effects of industrial fishing operations.

Despite these hardships, May is a busy month for turtles. Many have recently emerged from winter hibernation and are beginning their search for mates and nesting areas. For this reason, May 23 was designated World Turtle Day.

World Turtle Day was initiated in 2000 by the American Tortoise Rescue, a turtle and tortoise rescue organization founded in 1990 in Malibu, California. The group brings attention to turtle conservation issues and highlights ways each of us can help protect these gentle but jeopardized animals. In the spirit of World Turtle Day, we at The HSUS also have suggested actions you can take to honor these fascinating creatures.

Sea Turtles

The seven species of sea turtles are among the most endangered animals on earth. Their survival is seriously threatened by destructive industrial fishing operations such as longlining and shrimp trawling. Fishing nets and lines pulled through the oceans accidentally snare and kill countless sea turtles each year. Nesting habitat is also disappearing at an alarming rate as beach-front development flourishes. And although many local, national, and international laws protect them from trade, sea turtles continue to be collected for their eggs, meat, and shells.

Despite the many threats, there is hope for sea turtles. You can join the many individuals and groups working to make the world’s oceans a safer place for one of their oldest inhabitants.

Turtle Excluder Devices and Longlining

Steps are also being taken to limit the harmful effect fishing practices have on sea turtles. Many in this industry want to help protect endangered sea turtles, and they work alongside government organizations and protection groups to develop fishing techniques that reduce sea turtle injury and mortality. As a result of this work, the National Marine Fisheries Service, a federal agency within the Department of Commerce, issued regulations in 2003 requiring that fishing operations in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico use larger turtle excluder devices to allow bulkier sea turtles such as the loggerhead and leatherback to escape fishing nets. Larger TEDs are not the perfect solution, though. Some sea turtles die from injuries caused by TED gear failures and from being captured and released numerous times, so alternatives are being developed.

Turtles as Pets

Turtles are the most popular pet reptile. In 2007, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, about 1.1 million American households kept at least one turtle as a pet – about the same as the number with lizards and snakes combined. Data from the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association show an even higher number of households with pet turtles. The price of this pet ownership, at least for the animals, is high: Over-collection of turtles for the pet trade has harmed wild turtle populations in the United States and abroad. Captive breeding doesn’t solve the problem. Thousands of turtles perish during capture and shipping. Of those who survive, thousands more die because they do not receive proper care.

Often people who buy turtles don’t realize how difficult they are to care for, nor do they know that turtles pose a threat to human health because the reptiles carry Salmonella bacteria. The bacteria can cause severe and possibly life-threatening illness, especially in young children. In 2007, a 2-year-old Florida girl died from Salmonella that was traced back to a pet turtle. Because of the health risks, selling small turtles is illegal, but many are sold illegally.

The Turtle Trade

Throughout the world, the number of turtle species that have become critically endangered has increased due to their popularity in the food and traditional medicine trade. Turtles are exported from the United States in vast numbers—35 million turtles were exported just from 2000 to 2002.

The majority were freshwater turtles destined for Southeast Asia to supply the growing food markets. Because many wild turtle populations in Asia have been decimated by over-collection, dealers have begun targeting U.S. turtle populations to meet Asian market demands.

Fortunately, states are responding to this threat to their natural resources. In 2003, North Carolina prohibited the harvest of freshwater turtles. In 2007, Texas prohibited the commercial harvest of turtles from public waters. In 2008, Oklahoma enacted a three-year moratorium on the commercial harvest of turtles from public waters. In 2009, Florida prohibited commercial harvest of freshwater turtles and South Carolina enacted protections for nine native species, prohibiting the removal of more than 10 turtles from the wild at a time and more than 20 in a year.

In addition to conservation concerns, turtles in the food trade are treated with little or no regard as living creatures.

Pollution and Development

Habitat loss is a serious threat to all turtle populations.The gopher tortoise, for instance, is declining throughout its range, particularly in Florida, primarily because of development. In 2007, Florida stopped issuing permits that allowed developers to bury gopher tortoises alive during construction. Instead, developers are working with The Humane Society of the United States and others to relocated these treasured animals. Development along coastlines reduces suitable nesting habitats for sea turtles. Refuse, such as discarded plastic bags and balloons, causes suffocation, strangulation, or blocked digestive tracts in turtles. Pollution, in the form of hazardous chemicals and garbage, further limits suitable habitats for turtles and causes illness and death in many land, freshwater, and sea turtles.

A study conducted by the Canadian Wildlife Services at three sites in the Great Lakes region found deformities in male snapping turtles, believed to be the result of chemical pollution. Young turtles in the region also showed other biological abnormalities including impaired thyroid function.

Sea turtle populations near areas of intense human activity are suffering from the deadly disease Fibropapilloma, which may be caused by chemical pollution. It is believed that nearly half of all green sea turtles off the coast of Hawaii are infected with this disease and will perish from it.

World Turtle Day is an annual opportunity to reflect on the myriad of threats facing turtles and tortoises and what we can do to protect them.