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New report highlights top 50 tortoises and turtles on brink of extinction

New report highlights top 50 tortoises and turtles on brink of extinction
  • by on 22 March 2018

    More than 50 percent of the world’s tortoises and turtles are threatened with extinction, according to a new report.
  • The 2018 report presents an updated list of 50 species that are at immediate risk of extinction, selected on the basis of their “survival prospects and extinction risks.”
  • Some 58 percent of the top 50 species are native to Asia, the report said, with most species coming from China, followed by Vietnam, India, Indonesia and Madagascar.

When Lonesome George died in June 2012, it was the end of an entire species. He was the last surviving Pinta giant tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdonii), a Galapagos conservation icon who had lived for more than 100 years. But Lonesome George was not alone in his fate.

More than 50 percent of the world’s 356 known species of tortoises and turtles are currently threatened with extinction, or are nearly extinct, a new report warns. Loss and degradation of habitat; hunting for meat and eggs, or for traditional medicines; and the pet trade, both legal and illegal, are largely driving the decline of these reptiles.

“This report is a wake-up call — a call to action if you will — for everyone who cares about the future of this iconic group of animals,” Rick Hudson, president of the Turtle Survival Alliance, said in a statement. “We must double down on our commitment to protect them, and though we’ve made impressive strides in the recovery of several species, others are still at risk of slipping through the cracks. Turtles and tortoises face many serious threats today but none more insidious than the illegal wildlife trade.”

Painted terrapin. Photo by Gerald Kuchling.

Every four years since 2003, turtle conservationists have been publishing a list of the top 25 most threatened turtle species in the world. The 2018 report presents an updated list of 50 species that are at immediate risk of extinction, selected on the basis of their “survival prospects and extinction risks.”

Some 58 percent of the top 50 species are native to Asia, the report said, with most species coming from China, followed by Vietnam, India, Indonesia and Madagascar. While this is partly because Asia has high turtle richness, factors such as extensive poaching, habitat degradation and the pet trade are also to blame.

“The purpose of the Top 25+ is to call attention to those species most at risk of imminent extinction, to inform the public of the potential loss of these amazing animals, and to encourage governments to do more to prevent these looming extinctions,” said Craig Stanford, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group and professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California.

Meet five of the world’s most threatened tortoises and turtles:

 

1. Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei)

Weighing about 100 kilograms (220 pounds), this critically endangered turtle is the largest known freshwater turtle in the world. The species was once found across the Red River in China and Vietnam, and in China’s lower Yangtze River floodplain, but only three individuals are now known to exist. The only known wild individual lives in Lake Dong Mo, west of Hanoi in Vietnam. The remaining two, an elderly pair, live in China’s Suzhou Zoo. Attempts to breed the species in captivity have so far been unsuccessful.

Yangtze giant softshell turtle. Photo by Gerald Kuchling.

2. Ploughshare tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora)

Known only from the Baie de Baly National Park in northwestern Madagascar, the gold-and-black-shelled ploughshare tortoise is down to fewer than 100 wild individuals. The animal’s strikingly colored shell has made it a target for the international pet market, fueling rampant poaching and trafficking. In fact, since early 2016, ploughshare tortoises seem to have been wiped out from several areas of the national park, triggering fear that the tortoise may become extinct in the next few years.

Ploughshare tortoise. Photo by Eric Goode/Turtle Conservancy.

3. Yunnan box turtle (Cuora yunnanensis)

In 2000, the Yunnan box turtle became the first freshwater turtle to be listed as extinct on the IUCN Red List. In the following years, however, conservationists discovered three individuals in local Chinese markets. In 2008, scientists found a small wild population that now has about 50 individuals, while some hunters found a few other individuals. The brown-colored turtle is believed to be from Yunnan province in southern China, but its distribution is unclear.

Yunnan box turtle. Photo by Torsten Blanck.

4. Northern river terrapin (Batagur baska)

The northern river terrapin is considered to be extinct in Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Singapore, and is rarely seen in the rivers and deltas of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. To save the species from immediate extinction, conservationists have established four assurance colonies to improve their breeding success: one each in the Sundarbans and in the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust in India; and two in southern Bangladesh. In 2017, the two Bangladeshi groups produced 118 hatchlings, according to the report.

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Northern river terrapin. Photo by Rupali Ghosh.

5. Nubian flapshell turtle (Cyclanorbis elegans)

This soft-shelled carnivorous turtle is thought to occur in river basins in Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, Chad, Ethiopia, Sudan and Togo. Despite its potentially wide distribution, the Nubian flapshell turtle is rarely seen in the wild. Scientists have not found a single specimen of this species during extensive surveys throughout its range in recent decades, and the turtle doesn’t exist in captivity either. Interviews with some local fishermen, however, suggest that the species could possibly be living in some remote White Nile wetlands of South Sudan.

Nubian flapshell turtle. Photo by Maurice Rodrigues/Turtle Conservancy.

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