The Turtle Trade

The Turtle Trade Photo
Unless major conservation measure are enacted, Madagascar’s turtles and tortoises, like this radiated tortoise, will continue to crawl steadily toward extinction.
Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS
Arakan Turtle Photo
The Arakan turtle was believed to be extinct until 1994, when conservationists found a few specimens in a market in China. A team of WCS scientists recently discovered five of the critically endangered turtles while working in a wildlife sanctuary in Myanmar.
©Steve Platt

Turtles are in serious trouble. Though they have survived for about 220 million years and once roamed the Earth with the dinosaurs, half of all turtle and tortoise species are now threatened with extinction. Populations are shrinking nearly everywhere. No other vertebrate group—neither birds, nor mammals, amphibians, or sharks—are more endangered.

Without turtles and tortoises, many of the world’s ecosystems will suffer. The desert and gopher tortoises of North America, the giant river turtles in the Amazon basin of South America, the giant tortoises in the Galápagos and Seychelles islands, and the softshell turtles in Asia all play a key role in the healthy functioning of their environments.


The major threats to turtles and their eggs include collection for food and the pet trade, as well as for traditional medicine. In addition, their habitats are being increasingly fragmented, destroyed, developed, and polluted. The threats are particularly severe in Asia, where every tortoise and turtle species is being impacted in some manner by the international wildlife trade. A 2011 study co-authored by WCS found that in just one market in Dhaka, Bangladesh, close to 100,000 turtles were butchered for consumption during a religious holiday. The market was just one of at least three other known wildlife markets in Dhaka.

Despite having survived since the late Triassic Era, many turtle species will go extinct in the next decade unless drastic conservation measures are taken. Their slowness to reproduce and the high mortality rates of their hatchlings have left turtle populations vulnerable to new and devastating threats posed by human exploitation and habitat loss.


  • Improve enforcement of existing trade laws and habitat protection.
  • Train local conservationists to safeguard the survival of turtle populations in their native habitats, and develop countrywide monitoring networks for at-risk species.
  • Continue to establish captive breeding programs for some of the world’s most critically endangered turtles and tortoises.
  • Help create alternative livelihoods for communities that rely on the poaching of turtles and their eggs for sustenance.

What WCS is Doing

WCS helped sound some of the first alarm bells on the growing Asian turtle crisis in the late 1990s. In 1999, we organized a workshop on the turtle trade in collaboration with TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, World Wildlife Fund, Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. These meetings resulted in the first comprehensive documentation of the emerging crisis. Since then, we have co-hosted many more global turtle conservation workshops throughout Asia.

WCS staff have also work with local partners to maintain captive populations of species on the brink of extinction. WCS veterinarians have been working with Chinese officials and other partners to breed the last known male/female pair of Yangtze giant softshells, which currently reside at China’s Suzhou Zoo. In Myanmar, we have partnered with the Fort Worth Zoo-based Turtle Survival Alliance to bring back critically endangered species such as the Burmese roof turtle and Burmese starred tortoise. In just a few short years, the captive population of the Burmese roof turtle has grown from a handful of individuals to more than 400 animals. In addition, WCS is working to bolster this species’ wild populations by protecting its nesting beaches in Myanmar’s Chidwin River.

In Madagascar, WCS has undertaken efforts to save the country’s critically endangered radiated tortoises by monitoring and controlling illegal trade. Confiscated tortoises could be reintroduced to areas where populations have been decimated. With subsequent enforcement, opportunities for eco-tourism could follow. Other efforts by WCS-Madagascar to protect this species include habitat conservation, captive breeding, and environmental education programs.

From the Newsroom

Slow and Steady, Turtles Gain GroundMay 23, 2013

WCS has been working to save some of the most endangered turtles, an effort that combines the creation of assurance colonies at its zoos with in-country field conservation work.

Tortoise Trafficking Raging Out of Control in MadagascarMay 2, 2013

Turtle Species Get New York RescueApril 11, 2012

WCS recently began breeding four endangered turtle species, including the golden coin turtle, at its wildlife parks in New York City. Eventually, the plan is to reintroduce some species to the wild and develop assurance colonies for others. WCS conservationists are also working in the turtles’ native habitats to protect their wild kin.

Wanted: Tougher Enforcement Against Wildlife CrimeJuly 27, 2011

As organized crime steps up its game in wildlife trade, a WCS conservationist suggests fighting back through increased law enforcement and better use of resources.

Shellshock: The 25 Most Endangered Turtles in the WorldFebruary 21, 2011

According to a new report co-authored by WCS working in conjunction with the Turtle Survival Coalition, many more turtle species will go extinct in the next decade unless drastic conservation measures are taken.


~/media/Images/wcs org/forms/please donate to help conservation.png
Stay in touch with WCS and receive the latest news.