Chinese poachers to blame for sharp fall in turtle numbers off Japan, says conservation group

  • Police in Zhoushan found 128 dead turtles in a truck, two of which had been tagged by conservation group on the southern Japanese island of Yakushima
  • Founder of the group says turtle numbers on the island have fallen by a quarter in five years
PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 3:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 9:29pm

A Japanese conservation group has accused Chinese poachers of being behind the sharp decline in the number of sea turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs on the southern island of Yakushima.

Yakushima Umigame-kan, a non-profit organisation that operates a small visitor centre on the north-west coast of the island off Kyushu, was contacted in October by researchers from China’s Zhejiang University, after local police arrested smugglers in Zhoushan with 128 dead turtles in a truck.

Two female turtles seized by police had been tagged by Yakushima Umigame-kan volunteers when they had come to lay their eggs on the island; one in July 2008 and the other in June this year.

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“We know they had been here on Yakushima because they still had our monitoring tags on them when they were found by the police, although we have no way of telling just how they came to be in China,” said Yuji Honda, a spokesman for the group.

The island of Yakushima has been recognised by Unesco as a World Heritage Site for its spectacular flora and fauna. It is the largest nesting area for loggerhead turtles in the North Pacific, with an estimated 50 per cent of the region’s population nesting here every year.

Other endangered species of turtles also inhabit the waters around the island, including green turtles and red turtles.

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Since 1985, the local charity has worked to monitor and protect the different species of turtles that use the island’s sandy beaches to lay their eggs every year.

Founder of the group, Kazuyoshi Omuta, said turtle numbers around Yakushima had fallen by about a quarter in just five years, and that the reason is “highly likely to be poaching and other human activities”.

Omuta said that he believed as many as half of the dead turtles found with the poachers in China were born on Yakushima and he called for more efforts to monitor and protect the creatures.

“The poaching uncovered in Zhejiang Province is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “I must emphasise that efforts by private groups like ours are not enough to stop this from happening.”

But instead of getting better, the situation for turtles off southern Japan looks increasingly threatened, with organisations like Yakushima Umigame-kan struggling to find volunteers and full-time staff to stay afloat.

Now 68 years old and in ill-health, Omuta has been appealing for people to assist him as he patrols the beaches where the turtles lay their eggs and to record their numbers and size.