Help Save the Turtles!
*Corrected January 15, 2020 to include information on the locations of the world’s greatest diversity of turtle species and ‘ground zero’ for turtle trafficking.
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), in conjunction with local law enforcement and environmental agencies, conducted an historic illegal turtle trafficking ring bust last fall, and now the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) asks for your assistance to prevent this situation from occurring again.
“We here at the SCCF suspected for a while that turtle trafficking was occurring right under our noses, but we had no proof until the FWC contacted us about that ring and the potential bust and arrests,” said Chris Lechowicz, the SCCF Wildlife & Habitat Management Program Director who monitors the local turtle populations since 2002. “The FWC were able to document that the poachers took over 4,000 turtles and sold them over a 6-month period. When they acted on their Search Warrant last August, they seized hundreds of turtles with a black market value exceeding $200,000. After that, the FWC released roughly 300 of the captured turtles back onto Sanibel Island and the SCCF now tracks and monitors them through radio telemetry.”
Pets & Status Symbols
The breeds sought after by the poachers include box turtles, diamondback terrapins and mud turtles. “The poaching event had nothing to do with nesting sea turtles or even Gopher tortoises,” Chris reported. “These are turtles that walk around on land and live near shallow water areas. Poachers seek them out because these turtles are extremely important to many cultures, especially those in Asia, but not necessarily for the reasons that generally come to mind, like for food or medicine, as many of the trafficked turtle varieties are quite small and would not have a lot of meat. Rather, these cultures venerate turtles because the connote good luck and long life, so it is a big thing, with the latest estimates that over 40 percent of Asian middle-class households have turtles for pets, so poaching occurs primarily for the pet trade. It is a status symbol in Asian cultures to have a pretty turtle in your house, and if the turtle species happens to be rare, the more the better, because they will show them off to their family and friends.”
Southeast Asia previously had the world’s greatest diversity of turtle species, but now due to overharvesting, those populations are down, Chris explained, “making the Southeastern United States now the leader in these areas, and this is why poachers target us for our turtles. Once poachers capture them, the turtles go directly into the pet trade where they can turn them around for thousands of dollars in profit.”
The southeastern United States is ground zero in the turtle trafficking trade now. Sanibel is an attractive target due to the nearly 70% of the island preserved in its natural state. “We have turtles everywhere,” said Chris, “while in many other areas of Florida, development for housing and condominiums is wiping out their large wooded lots, making them hard to find, so poachers love to operate out of conservation areas like we have here.”
United States officials began to recognize that turtle trafficking was a real issue and growing problem in the late 1990s and early 2000s when they realized there was an abnormally large influx of turtles on the open market in China and other Asian nations, and this continued to escalate during the new century’s first decade, leading to the passage of the initial legislation in 2007 and 2008 to keep turtles here and safe. Approximately 10 years ago, most Southeastern states joined in on the Federal Government efforts by enacting their own legislation to prevent turtle smuggling and trafficking. Florida in 2009 passed laws making it illegal to sell wild turtles, with most other Southeastern states eventually adopting similar ones, to close the loophole of turtles being caught in one state then being legally sold in another.
Despite the 2019 arrests, turtle trafficking remains a huge concern in Southwest Florida. “Many people on Sanibel are now aware of the situation,” said Chris, “and law enforcement that until recently, did not take turtle poaching seriously sure do now! If they catch you attempting to poach turtles, punishment begins with a $5,000-per-turtle fine and potential prison time. We are installing signage about this to alert our citizens to help us to protect the turtles on our island.”
Chris cautioned, however, “Despite all these rules and regulations, turtle poaching is so profitable that it continues in many areas anyway, to meet the demand in one way or another. We try to get the word out as much as possible about turtle poaching and trafficking, but unfortunately the mainstream media fixates on nesting sea turtles first and foremost, then to a lesser extent on the plight of Gopher tortoises, so hardly anyone was paying any mind to this, but the bust on Sanibel is now getting the attention of local citizens. If you want to find out just how severe turtle trafficking is, just Google the topic and you will discover countless arrests ranging all over the Southeastern United States, so it is most assuredly not just a Southwest Florida problem. Since the bust here on Sanibel, I am now receiving requests from media from as far away as California to discuss the issue, so hopefully we are starting to break through in the public consciousness.”
Be On The Lookout
Turtle poaching and trafficking can have a devastating and long-term effect on turtle populations, Chris cautioned. “Box turtles can live 100 years or more, and because of that long lifespan, it takes decades for them to mature to their reproductive years, and then they lay only a few eggs at a time, unlike nesting sea turtles that have clutches near the hundreds. If we continue to lose them through poaching, it can take several generations before we will start to notice any recovery, so this can be horrific to their future survival. Our turtles are quite common now, but this type of overharvesting can wipe them out before we know it.”
Chris pleads that everyone be on the lookout for suspicious activity and to report it immediately. “If you have a wooded area or wet ditch near your home, and you see someone walking with their head down and picking up and looking under things, particularly where people do not often frequent, that can be a telltale sign. If you discover a trap in a ditch, that is another. We ask that you leave the trap, but immediately contact authorities and let them take care of it from there. While we did have the arrests on Sanibel last year, because of the profitability of turtle trafficking, it is only a matter of time before someone else does it again, so please help us help the turtles!”
If you notice potentially illicit activity on Sanibel, call the Sanibel Police Department at 239-472-3111, as they can respond faster than anyone. On Fort Myers Beach, your best option is to report it to the FWC at 888-404-FWCC (3922). For more information, contact Chris at the SCCF at 239-472-3984 or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to make a donation to SCFF to assist with its turtle monitoring and protection programs, go to www.sccf.org.
- A Florida box turtle ( c. bauri) from the FWC turtle trafficking bust is located with radio telemetry by SCCF biologists several times a week to monitor its home range and habitat preference.
- Chris Lechowicz, the Director of the Wildlife & Habitat Management Program and staff herpetologist at SCCF releases a Florida box turtle on protected lands. Photos provided.