These strange-looking turtles in Hong Kong may quickly be extinct


Hong Kong CNN  —  One of many world’s most densely populated cities may appear an unlikely refuge for endangered wildlife. However behind the concrete jungle of Hong Kong, the place greater than 7 million folks mingle in a 430 sq. mile space house to extra skyscrapers than NY city, lies one of many final holdouts for a number of unique species of turtle. Elsewhere in Asia, consultants say, these species – prized for his or her use in Chinese language medication and as unique pets – have been hunted to the brink of extinction. Whereas in Hong Kong, the unlikeliness of the setting has enabled them to fly largely underneath poachers’ radar. Or a minimum of, till lately. Even this haven now appears underneath risk. Specialists say poaching incidents are rising dramatically as disappearing populations pressure poachers to solid their nets ever wider searching for a brand new provide. “Hong Kong is likely one of the final bastions of turtle conservation in Asia,” stated Sung Yik-hei, an affiliate professor at Lingnan College. He has been monitoring the town’s turtle inhabitants for greater than a decade and estimates it has fallen by 60% to 80% throughout that point. Publicizing the turtles’ plight now could also be his final likelihood to save lots of them from extinction, he believes, even when it means breaking the secrecy that has shielded them for therefore lengthy. “Earlier than, we didn’t wish to inform folks we’ve turtle populations, or so-called strong potential populations,” Sung stated. “Whereas we needed to coach folks about wild turtles, we have been nervous {that a} sure few folks may develop into and go searching.” Now although, he and his group of college conservationists assume it’s a matter of “now or by no means.” “The scenario has come to some extent the place it can’t be worse,” he stated. Hong Kong’s endangered turtles Past the postcard pictures of the glowing places of work and dazzling lights which have made Hong Kong well-known lie the hinterlands of its New Territories simply south of the border with mainland China. It’s a rural idyll of subtropical temperatures, plentiful rivers and streams, and a relative lack of human growth – precisely the form of surroundings wherein varied species of freshwater turtle thrive, Sung says. Lots of the turtles right here have been as soon as plentiful in different components of Asia, like Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan and mainland China, however poaching has decimated their populations to the purpose that some species are actually counted of their a whole lot and largely solely in Hong Kong. Sung displays their nesting areas with a system of 40 surveillance cameras linked to his cell phone. The place as soon as he would have noticed 10 poaching incidents a yr, six occurred in February 2023 alone. “In all of the streams I visited (on a latest journey), we noticed indicators of unlawful turtle searching. We discovered traps, or we all know the turtles ought to be there, however we can not discover any,” Sung stated. Among the many populations he’s combating to protect are the Golden coin turtle, a species as soon as prized for medicinal functions and utilized in turtle jelly however now in demand as an unique pet whose rarity and unusual appears have made it solely extra precious to poachers. Patrons see the golden stripes on their heads as a logo of prosperity and are prepared in excessive circumstances to pay a whole lot of hundreds of US {dollars}. Sung says there are regarded as round 100 left in Hong Kong – one of many world’s final vital populations, he says. Going through an identical plight is the Beale’s eyed turtle, fewer than 200 of that are regarded as left in Hong Kong and an unknown – however regarded as very small – quantity in mainland China. These turtles have a sample on the again of their head within the form of two eyes – probably an evolutionary trait, some scientists counsel, meant to scare off predators. Its distinctive appears have made it too a prize for unique pet keepers, who pay a whole lot of US {dollars} for it on the black market. Then there may be the Massive-headed turtle, one other strange-looking species that has develop into fashionable with these searching for an unique pet. It has an eagle-like beak, a crocodile-like tail and a head so large it might probably’t slot in its shell. A couple of hundred are left in Hong Kong, and maybe even fewer in its different houses of Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. It could possibly go for as much as $1,000 on the unlawful market. Not one of the three turtles talked about up to now are appropriate to be stored as pets. The Massive-headed turtle is especially unsuitable, Sung says, as for them to outlive they’d require elaborate enclosures to imitate their pure environments. What’s extra, underneath Hong Kong legislation, possession of an endangered turtle is a prison offense punishable by as much as a most of 10 years in jail and a HK$10 million [$1.27 million] tremendous, relying on the species. But they continue to be in fashionable demand and characterize simply the tip of the iceberg of the unlawful commerce in turtles within the metropolis – which includes each endangered species and extra frequent ones. Citing public knowledge, Hong Kong-based ADM Capital Basis, a personal analysis physique, stated metropolis authorities have seized a minimum of 17,900 stay turtles and tortoises from unlawful smugglers since 2015, when a speedboat ferrying greater than 12,719 was intercepted, the biggest batch ever detected. Then there’s a booming authorized commerce, with Hong Kong importing greater than 4.three million turtles and tortoises between 2015 and 2022, in accordance with the analysis physique. Right here, too, Hong Kong’s density is an element. Bowie Chan Wing-wai, 41, who runs the Hong Kong Reptile Channel on Fb, stated turtles and different small reptiles have been fashionable within the metropolis as a result of many individuals lived in cramped residing areas and there was a notion that the animals might be stored in small enclosures. However in lots of circumstances this ignored the reptiles’ elementary wants. “Take Brazilian turtles for instance,” Chan stated, referring to a standard breed seen in lots of native houses. “They could be tiny however they want the solar and clear water to outlive that not many households can present.” And even when turtles are traded legally, there could be grey areas. Sam Inglis, ADM’s wildlife program supervisor, stated export information indicated simply a number of hundred thousand of the 4.three million imported between 2015 and 2022 have been legally re-exported, suggesting that the majority had remained within the metropolis, died, been consumed, or smuggled out of Hong Kong illegally. “The reality seemingly lies someplace within the midst of those eventualities,” he stated. Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Division (AFCD) informed CNN it spares “no effort in combating unlawful searching actions to guard wild animals” and has been working with the police and native animal welfare teams to patrol nesting areas and take away animal traps. It stated it had efficiently prosecuted in 24 out of the 47 circumstances of wildlife searching it had detected since 2020. Throughout the identical interval, It succeeded in prosecuting in 4 out of the 38 circumstances associated to possession of endangered freshwater turtles. Nonetheless, some poachers stay undeterred and a few activists argue their more and more forceful strategies – working at evening and sometimes carrying weapons – imply the difficulty can be higher dealt with by police than the AFCD. Sung took CNN to 2 websites the place his cameras had been broken, he believes by poachers. Hong Kong police informed CNN that AFCD was the “main division” in combating poaching, whereas they supplied help or took half in joint operations “upon request.” However Jovy Chan, supervisor of wildlife conservation at WWF Hong Kong, stated efficient enforcement would imply tracing the unlawful cash flows that stored the poaching trade afloat – one thing past the remit of the AFCD, which doesn’t have the ability to trace financial institution accounts. Chan additionally believes authorized modifications are wanted, as poaching actions are coated by a hodge-podge of laws, not all of which carry the identical penalties. The Wild Animals Safety Ordinance, for instance, carries a most sentence of only one yr in jail. Altering the legislation is much past the remit of Sung and his researchers on the college. For now, they need to do what they’ll to document the ever-dwindling numbers of those exceptional creatures. There’s a lot at stake, Sung stated. “If Hong Kong can do properly….if we will get the police actively concerned in anti-hunting, we will display to different locations or the area, and mainland…

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