Calls to protect endangered golden coin turtle, sold in Hong Kong pet shops for as much as HK$100,000
Native reptile, rarely found anywhere else in the world, faces extinction from uncontrolled poaching and ineffective farming methods
Barely two hours have passed on a hike into a Hong Kong country park and already, two rat traps have been found along a stream by Anthony Lau Yin-kun from the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation. But these are not traps set for vermin.
According to Lau, a scientific manager with the theme park’s conservation arm, the traps were placed by poachers seeking a native freshwater turtle, highly sought after for its value and use in Chinese medicine. Live specimens sold at pet shops can go for as high as HK$100,000 (US$13,000) each.
“This one definitely looks improvised,” Lau said, examining one of the contraptions built mostly out of mangled chicken wire.
For almost two decades, those in the illegal wildlife trade have been targeting the golden coin turtle (Cuora trifasciata) in the city’s remote valleys and streams. To prevent more poaching activity, the name of the country park where Lau discovered the traps cannot be revealed.
With culprits rarely facing any legal consequences, scientists warn that conservation efforts should be stepped up before it is too late.
“We don’t have any data to indicate whether there has been more poaching or less, but we are finding more cages and fewer turtles,” Lau said.
The foundation is engaged in a two-year research and conservation programme on the species and part of its work is to find and remove traps.
Hong Kong is one of the last places in the world where a small, wild population of breeding coin turtles can still be found. But extinction may just be round the corner.
At least 116 turtle traps have been seized by authorities this year, compared with 95 for the whole of last year, 134 in 2016 and 44 in 2015.
Only one successful prosecution has been made against a poacher since 2013.
“If no green sea turtles are found in Hong Kong any more, it’s not as worrying in the grand scheme of things because it still has a global distribution,” Lau said. “But if there are no more golden coin turtles here, it is a global problem.”
Also known as the three-striped box turtle for its distinctive marking, it is classified as “critically endangered” on the international Red List of Threatened Species under the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global body monitoring protected natural sites.
The omnivorous reptiles, which can grow to about 25cm, are active on land and in water, contributing to the transfer of nutrients in the ecosystem.
On a trip with the foundation into the country park – a poaching black spot – the Post observed clear signs of trapping operations deep in the woods, including what appeared to be an abandoned camp.
Packaging for a gas stove and toothpaste lay in the dirt. In the bushes nearby was a rucksack stuffed with several canvas bags. Lau had earlier found one containing many cages.
The turtles often end up as pets – they are seen as talismans for luck and wealth in Chinese culture – or smuggled to mainland China for a quick profit. They are also a valuable ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.
As a species under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), commercial possession of wild turtles requires a licence. But farmed specimens are exempt. The government has to date not issued any such licences.
Because one licence can cover multiple turtles, there is no way to distinguish illegal stocks mixed into legal ones.
A market survey by researchers at the University of Hong Kong this year found that at least three out of 11 aquarium shops in Mong Kok’s “Goldfish Street” sold the animals with prices ranging from HK$40,000 to HK$100,000 each.
Prices for male turtles, which are rarer, are about 50 per cent higher than females. This is because of a farming industry on the mainland, which affects prices. In captivity, artificially incubated eggs are extremely sensitive to temperatures, producing a disproportionately higher number of females.
Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden senior conservation officer Paul Crow said: “Farming was supposed to take the pressure off wild stocks ... But it didn’t really work that way because of the quirk in reptile biology [influencing the sex of hatchlings in captivity].
“The easy solution was for farmers to offer more money for males. So there is still a lot of incentive to go into the countryside [and look for wild ones].”
He said the best way to control poaching was to target sellers and plug loopholes in the licensing system.
Kadoorie, where the government sends most rescued wild animals, is helping to develop an off-site breeding programme. The goal is to repopulate suitable turtle habitats in the future.
The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said it had no figures on the golden coin turtle in the wild. It added that anyone caught poaching protected species could be fined up to HK$100,000 and jailed for a year. Under laws for wildlife crimes, unlicensed commercial possession of an endangered species is punishable by a HK$10 million fine and 10 years in prison.
A spokesman said the department was conducting regular monitoring of the turtle and its habitats and would formulate measures to strengthen supervision, enforcement and conservation.