On Feb. 17, the Biology Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston hosted another one of its speaker series of this spring semester. Doug Woodhams, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biology with focus on Disease Ecology, introduced guest speaker Dr. Nancy Karraker.
Karraker currently holds the position of assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island and has focused most of her research on the consequences that environmental changes, especially those caused by human interference, have on local animal or plant species.
In her discussion, she addressed the Asian Turtle Crisis and the problematic and ongoing illegal harvesting that has worsened over the past years. Karraker explained that the overall reptile population has been declining worldwide. The researcher also added that this decrease in numbers is mainly due to the overwhelming interference by humans into the processes of nature and its animal populations.
Actions related to overcollection represent one of the biggest threats to reptiles, such as turtles. Karraker explained that often times many people want to have them as pets, which results in the concerning trend of illegal trafficking of rare and exotic reptiles or amphibians across the world.
“People do crazy things to transport them because they can make a lot of money with it,” she said. Other reasons for the global decline in reptile populations are habitat loss, diseases, contaminants, invasive species, and interactions, as the professor pointed out.
As a focus of her talk, Karraker discussed the ongoing turtle crisis that has been occurring in Eastern and Southeast Asia, which are known to be the habitats of a large number of different turtle species. The speakers explained that around 20 percent of the world’s turtle species live in these areas, and that 85 percent are currently at the risk of extinction. A large and lucrative black market represents the biggest cause for the endangerment of these animals. Hot spots like Hong Kong, Bangkok, or Guangzhou even have laws passed by the government against the illegal trade of turtles. But these hot spots lack the capacities to enforce these regulations. Karraker said, based on her own experience, that the animals are most of the times sold openly and “right under the noses of authorities.”
Karraker said once rare and expensive turtles are sold to willing buyers, they are either used as pets, as food, or for purposes in relation to the local tradition. Regarding the pet trade, it is made up primarily of Europe, the United States, and Japan. Groups like children, hobbyists, and collectors represent the biggest target audience for the traffickers and vendors. However, when it comes to incorporating turtles in dishes, China and Vietnam are the areas where most turtles end up. Here, these animals are often thought of being a healthy choice for a meal, and at the same time display the patron’s wealth when ordered to eat due to its high price. Furthermore, in China turtles are often secured for traditional uses, as the animal is associated with good luck and healing powers.
After presenting some of her students’ various research regarding this crisis, along with some of her own, Karraker went on to propose a number of solutions that could help protect the turtle population in the future. For example, the closing down of illegal markets would represent a key element in stopping the illegal sale of these animals, even though it might be difficult due to its lucrativity. Karraker also suggested that more population studies about turtles have to be carried out, and collaborations with local communities have to be encouraged. Other options to consider are the monitoring of habitats and the pursuit of wildlife forensics to gather more information.
While it is necessary to enlighten people about the problems surrounding the declining turtle population, Karraker explained that it can often be quite difficult to inform people, especially in larger cities. The more urbanized a place is, the harder it is to educate people, because they are more removed from nature.