The plight of the planet's tortoises and turtles- creatures that have roamed the Earth for 220 million years - has never been greater, according to a detailed report released today by the Turtle Conservation Coalition.
It shows the world's 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles will become extinct in the next few decades without concerted conservation efforts.
Worldwide the hunting of turtles is at vastly unsustainable levels. For example, in just one market in Dhaka, Bangladesh close to 100,000 wild caught turtles are butchered for consumption during a one-day religious holiday each year. Furthering the problem is a lucrative international black-market trade in pet turtles and tortoises that has escalated prices of some of the more rare species into the tens of thousands of dollars. Rumors even exist that some of the rarest Asian species are now commanding prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"Turtles are in serious trouble. They are some of the world's most endangered vertebrates, more than mammals, birds, and even amphibians. Half of their species are threatened with extinction," notes Anders Rhodin. "They're being collected from the wild for food, perceived medicinal beliefs, and pets, while their habitats are being polluted and destroyed every day."
Of the 25 most endangered turtles, over two-thirds (17) are from Asia, a result of decades of massive exploitation of the region's turtle. Evolutionary marvels, their armored shells no longer ensure their survival. "Shells work great against natural predators, but are no match against humans armed with fire, knives and trucks" said Peter Paul van Dijk.
Number one on the list is the Pinta Island Tortoise, one of the Galapagos tortoises species that contributed to Charles Darwin's theories on Natural Selection. Sadly, only a single male of this species, 'Lonesome George', remains alive today. Ironically, Darwin and other travelers often ate many of the islands' tortoises and released rats, goats, and other animals, which significantly contributed to their decline.
Close behind is the Red River Giant Softshell Turtle of China and Vietnam, weighing over 250 lbs with a shell over three feet long. With only four animals left (three males and one female), the stakes have never been higher.
Some species are in danger of disappearing before scientists even find out where they live. Zhou's Box Turtle (6th most endangered) has occasionally appeared in the turtle markets of China, but to date no one has located a wild population.