The trade that is killing the turtle
TRAFFIC is the only global specialist organisation focused on trade in wild fauna and flora, and operates as a strategic alliance of WWF and IUCN. TRAFFIC has an internationally recognised reputation for the quality of its research, technical expertise and its ability to work objectively.
Because of the complexity inherent in dealing with wildlife trade, TRAFFIC often works across a number of sectors, with government and non-government partners at national and international levels. Strategies to address illegal wildlife trade, including marine turtles, are based on research-driven approaches to advocate for international and national action, including policy change, enhanced law enforcement, increased capacity and training for government officers, and outreach to the public to reduce demand for illegal and unsustainable wildlife products.
Rising purchasing power in China and other Asian economies have driven the expansion of markets for ‘luxury wildlife goods’ for food, medicine and display. Trade in marine turtle products is largely commercially driven, rather than for subsistence use – whether for food (meat, eggs), medicine (shell, usually as a substitute for freshwater turtle shell) or luxury items (shell for jewellery or whole specimens for decorative display). The turtles are caught by foreign and domestic fishing effort, often as by-catch and sometimes targeted specifically. From point of harvest to end-use market there are usually several steps in the trade chain. Interventions should be considered to prevent poaching in source locations, to increase law enforcement effectiveness at intermediate points of transaction, at points of processing and sale to the end-consumer. Reducing demand for these illegal wildlife products should also be pursued to raise the awareness of processers, traders, and end-consumers – ultimately a change in their behaviour to avoid such products will result in less demand and this should lead to reductions in poaching pressure.
TRAFFIC’s work on the illegal trade of marine turtle products in the Coral Triangle region has focused historically on harvest and trade of whole specimens, meat, shell and eggs in Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as concentrated efforts in Viet Nam in partnership with WWF and IUCN. More recently, TRAFFIC’s research work has focused on the current market status in China and Japan, connected to supply from the Coral Triangle. The Chinese provinces of Hainan and Guangxi have emerged as major hubs for processing and sale of marine turtle products, as well as supply to other market locations in China. An integrated strategy for behavioural change involving advocacy with government authorities and specific sectors of the buying public, combined with targeted capacity building for relevant law enforcement agencies is currently being implemented with an array of partners. In parallel with this WWF-supported effort in China, TRAFFIC is pursuing concurrently a capacity building strategy in South-east Asia, supporting the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network in curbing illegal trade of marine species, including marine turtles, with funding from the US Department of State.
Marine turtles play an important role in the balance and integrity of marine ecosystems. Major threats result from direct exploitation for human consumption (meat, eggs and shell) as well as by-catch and degradation of marine turtle habitats. Populations in the Coral Triangle have declined dramatically in recent decades – by as much as 90% for some populations, mainly due to illegal harvesting for trade. Individuals need to learn about the important role of marine turtles in ocean ecosystems, and to understand what effects their purchasing decisions, driven by desire for consuming marine turtle products, have on these ancient chelonian species in the wild. Beyond targeting actual end-users, we need to persuade others to influence changes in consumer behaviour.
In my role as the head of TRAFFIC’s team in China, I have found that dealing with illegal wildlife trade is often a complex equation. It involves research and analysis, advocacy, political diplomacy and investing in strategic partnerships and targeted communications. Persistence is probably the most significant quality you need, as well as an ability to think laterally to devise workable solutions in whichever local, national or international context you are working in. I hope that our efforts in China will further enhance co-operation with our South-east Asian neighbours, and reduce both supply of, and demand for, marine turtles and their products.