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Saving Turtles

Wouldn’t you know it. The day I finally got around to writing about bees was actually World Turtle Day. Survivors since the age of the dinosaurs, turtles are gentle, amazing and long lived creatures with some species able to live up to two hundred years. Some can swim 35 MPH and swim very long distances [see more turtle facts here], yet like so many other creatures, they are also facing extinction as a result of human activity. Seventy per cent of the world's 350 species are endangered, including the Hawksbill, the Loggerhead and the Green.

For example, with respect to the Australian Sea Turtle, aka the Green Turtle, beaches are now getting so hot as a result of climate change, that many of their eggs no longer hatch and those that do turn into females. That gender imbalance may further limit their capacity to breed in future. As with so many other species habitat destruction is another factor - polluted water, waterfront development, people and their dogs trampling the margins of beaches where turtles lay their eggs or preventing young hatchlings from reaching the water, all contribute to their decline. They are also at risk from  factory fishing where they end up as bycatch or get caught in the nets of long line trawlers. Accidental encounters with seagoing vessels, oil spills and offshore drilling are additional concerns, together with run -off from farms and sewerage outfalls.

Plastic bags - the white death

Another major threat comes from plastic pollution, particularly those opaque plastic bags which look like jellyfish to a turtle, jellyfish being a natural part of their diet. Once these bags are ingested, they distend in the turtle’s stomach, and the turtle starves to death. Others die because they become entangled in fishing line, ropes or nets. 

It's been estimated that there are more than 100 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean. Since 2002 some 127 countries have taken some action to limit the proliferation of plastic bags. Seventy four of them have banned them completely and 37 countries have introduced charges to dissuade people from using them, yet the amount of plastic in our oceans has not only not diminished, but doubled in the last twenty years. Much of this is due to exemptions for food packaging and the like. For this reason, some countries such as India and Australia are now calling on producers to take more responsibility, rather than relying solely on consumers to do the right thing.

The illegal wildlife trade

I heard recently -  it may have been on David Attenborough's doco on Pangolins, that wildlife smuggling now accounts for more dark money globally than drug smuggling and human trafficking combined. Unfortunately, turtles and tortoises are not exempt. On International Turtle Day of all days, Filipino customs officials found some 1500 turtles and tortoises abandoned at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. [One hopes that they looked on the other days as well] and only a week before Mexican authorities intercepted a shipment of 15,000 turtles of several different species bound for China. Malaysia also disrupted a  shipment of thousands of turtles last May.  Turtles are regarded as a delicacy, an aphrodisiac and as a component of traditional medicine in several Asian countries, though some animals are destined for the illegal pet trade too.

Could ending wet markets help?

 “Wet markets” have been blamed for spreading Covid 19 because of their trade in wild animals and hygiene concerns, so a ban on them could also eliminate some of this illicit trade, yet there are fears that this would simply drive it underground, thus education and encouraging changing tastes (preference for vegetarian food for example) would be better options in the long run.

 [That's not to say Westerners aren't above reproach in this regard either, given how some of our farm animals are treated]. Some argue that without such outlets, small producers would have no income, but see Projecto Tamar in Brazil which has solved this problem by employing former poachers and fishermen to protect sea turtles instead.*

As yet, there is little international protection for turtles, though some countries or states have an assortment of statutes.  All species of turtle in Australia have been protected since 1999, with very stringent penalties, though so far this has not been enough to prevent their decline. South Carolina in the USA doesn't allow commercial trapping. Florida doesn't allow wild turtles to be sold.

Apart from urging governments to take stronger action or supporting groups that do, here are some things which you can do to help turtles. Most conservation groups offer similar advice, but these mostly from a travel insurer's site are more comprehensive than most. 

  •  Don’t use plastic bags. Get involved in beach clean ups. If you see a plastic bag on the beach or in a river remove it and dispose of it safely.

    If you are a boating person carry a rubbish bucket with you, not only for your own rubbish, including ropes and bits of fishing line, but also any other debris you find. Make sure your boat isn't losing oil or  diesel.
  •  If you see any turtles on the beach -including hatchlings or eggs, admire them by all means, but please leave them alone. If you are near a beach where turtles are known to nest, turn the lights off at night so that they don’t become disoriented. Don't leave holes from umbrellas or sand castles on the beach when you leave because they can hinder turtles on their way to and from the sea.
  • Stay away from nesting areas flagged by rangers. Report people who appear to be harming, trapping or removing turtles or their eggs. If you really want to get up close and personal with a turtle, visit one of the many sanctuaries and rescue centres -see below, or better still, help them in some way.
  • Limit your use of chemicals because they too end up in our oceans

  • Don’t buy souvenirs or products made from turtle or turtle shell and don't buy turtles from pet shops 

Cerro, one of two Galapagos Tortoises at Perth Zoo recently celebrated his 50th birthday though he is just a teenager in turtle years. The difference between a tortoise and a turtle is that tortoises live on land whereas turtles spend most of their lives in the sea

There are many organizations working to help turtles, too many to mention here. Some such as the Turtle Conservancy which celebrated its 50th birthday on World Turtle Day, are global in scope. Others such as Australia's  Sea Turtle Foundation are more regional. Sea Turtles 991 based in Hawaii, works to save sea turtles in China and the China Sea while Brazil's Projecto Tamar, going since 1980, has so far protected and returned 8 million turtles to the sea. Others work to protect a specific species, while yet others focus on the entire marine environment, including other species. All are important so take your pick and do what you can.

STOPPRESS: Some good news re China 26/5/2020
The good news is that China is starting to tackle this problem. The Chinese Government has instituted a ban on the use of wild animals in Traditional Chinese Medicine, until the details can be worked out and at least three Chinese and two International non – profit organisations are working to have at least endangered species such as Tiger, Rhino and Pangolin parts excluded, as part of a proposal to be put before the International Union for the Conservation of Nature which has had to be postponed until January 2021 because of Covid 19.

Both within China and elsewhere, practitioners of traditional medicine are also calling for substitution with plant materials, which is both possible and more in keeping with the original philosophy of the discipline, as they believe that the use of endangered species is giving this form of medicine a bad name, just as it is gaining wider acceptance in the west.