Poachers driving golden coin turtles to extinction

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2007, 12:00am

Conservationists are calling for tougher penalties against poachers who are pushing a critically endangered turtle to the verge of extinction.

And they are appealing to the public to help overcome the practical difficulties of enforcing a ban on turtle trapping by reporting suspicious activity in country parks.

Hong Kong is home to the only golden coin turtles in the world after the species was wiped out across southern China and Vietnam by widespread trapping and harvesting.

The species can fetch from HK$15,000 to HK$350,000 for a single turtle in the city and on the mainland, where it has traditionally been a prized ingredient in Chinese medicine and is now also sought after as a cure for cancer.

Under the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance 1976, the maximum fine for poaching is HK$100,000. Since 2001, four people have been convicted of poaching gold coin turtles in Hong Kong but the highest fine imposed by the courts is HK$3,000.

A breeding programme is under way at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in the New Territories in a bid to create a colony of 100 turtles that can be released into the wild in 10 years' time to reinforce the existing population. It is conducted under high security after thieves broke in and stole 23 hatchlings in 2005.

But conservationists leading the programme claim illegal trapping of the golden coin turtle across Hong Kong's country parks is now so rife that the wild turtles could be decimated before the programme is complete.

Head of fauna conservation Gary Ades said Kadoorie Farm had surveyed 10 streams for illegal trapping from July to September last year and found more than 1,000 traps.

'Our survey showed that trapping is widespread in Hong Kong and few streams and rural areas are safe for the turtles,' Dr Ades said.

'The level of illegal trapping we are seeing is a serious threat for the survival of the species. We fear that within a decade it will be virtually extinct in Hong Kong and also in the world.

'I would like to see judges imposing much more severe fines to provide an effective deterrent to poachers. The judiciary should be looking to set fines much closer to the maximum.

'We appeal to the public to help us in our endeavours to save the golden coin turtle from extinction. We want groups like hikers to report to the Agriculture Fisheries and Conservation Department when they see any illegal activity or any traps in the streams. Anyone who sees anything suspicious in a country park should report it.'

Senior conservation officer Paul Crow said: 'If these results are extrapolated across the whole territory, the situation is indeed critical. No species can endure that intensity of trapping and harvesting from the wild.'

Cheung Ka-shing, wetland and conservation officer with the Agriculture Fisheries and Conservation Department, said its officers found 229 traps last year compared to 306 in 2001, while the number of searches for golden coin turtles poachers and their traps had increased more than fourfold over the period to 582.

'If we find a trap, we will remove it immediately so that we disrupt the trapping process,' he said.

'It is very difficult for our team of officers to catch the poachers. They just have to lay a trap and then they go away. We don't know when they will come back again and we can't have officers out patrolling streams across the whole territory 24 hours a day. Many of them are not accessible by vehicle and sometimes there is no footpath at all.'

Anyone who wants to report turtle trapping can call the government hotline 1823.