Millions are imported from the USA to feed the demand of a vast pet turtle market where wild-caught turtles command higher prices and hybridisation is rife in large commercial farms
Chinese pet market is now worth more than 200 billion yuan (30 billion US dollars) per year, according to 2019 industry surveys. There are around two hundred million pet owners in China, and it is estimated that one in ten keeps reptiles. Turtles are especially popular – not only are they considered symbols of longevity, but the Chinese are turtle experts - farming and breeding of turtles in China dates back thousands of years.
China farms common species turtles for food and traditional medicine, but enormous numbers of turtles of exotic species are now brought into China. They are not imported for food, but to satisfy the demands of the country’s growing number of turtle collectors.
Research by HKU’s Species Victim Impact Statements (SVIS) Initiative has identified close to 100 species of turtle on sale in China. Two very popular species are common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii).
Snapping turtles are popular pets in China because of their charismatic, "fierce" looks. Image: Simardfrancois / Pixabay
In China, hatchlings of both species can now be bought for less than 5 US dollars on major internet shopping platforms, such as JD.com.
Alligator snapping turtles on sale on JD.com for 35 yuan (around 6 USD). This advert offers pure alligator turtles as well as hybrids, but it is unclear which species are hybridised.
Where do these snapping turtles come from? Both species are now bred commercially in China, but imports of wild caught animals are surging.
The two species are now included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix III, which means that the international trade in these species requires CITES permits and certificates of origin, and is recorded on the CITES database.
According to this database, in the past ten years China legally imported more than 3,1 million snapping turtles, almost all from the United States. Two million were common snapping turtles, and the rest alligator snapping turtles. Starting in 2018, the numbers skyrocketed – more than 635,000 have been imported since, before the trade stopped in 2019 due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Direct import is not the only way snapping turtles get into Mainland China. Over the past ten years Hong Kong imported from the United States almost 170,000 snapping turtles and 90,000 alligator snapping turtles, far more than a city of less than 7 million people is likely to need.
Hong Kong is one of the world’s largest wildlife trading and smuggling hubs. It is very easy to import goods into Hong Kong, and the territory then becomes a stepping stone to the markets of Mainland China - contraband is smuggled there from Hong Kong in speed boats and trucks.
The 3,5 million snapping turtles legally imported into Hong Kong and Mainland China is only what has been recorded in CITES database. To this figure we must add the animals smuggled in without CITES documents. Seizures, by customs and law enforcement, of shipments of valuable turtle species, such a pig-nosed turtles and painted box turtles, regularly appear in the Chinese press, but we have little idea of the volume of smuggling.
Common snapping turtle is classified as a “least concern” species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but alligator snapping turtle is now listed as “vulnerable”.
The species are not in immediate danger, but extraction of such large numbers of turtles from the wild is not a good sign for wild populations. Demand for pets can eventually decimate even common, abundant species – this is now happening with song birds across South East Asia.
Snapping turtles are now farmed in China, there are even signs of escapees becoming established as invasive species: in China’s southern provinces people in the country-side have been seen selling single individuals of what appear to be wild-caught snapping turtles. But it is unclear how much of the collectors’ demand is satisfied by these domestically bred turtles.
Alarmingly, there is also evidence of hybrids on the market. In commercial turtle farming in China, hybridisation, both intentional and accidental, is rife. Intentional hybridisation is used to produce cheaper "copies" of prized, very expensive species such as Chinese box-turtle (Cuora flavomarginata). The same thing seems to be occurring with alligator snapping turtles - "real alligators" are sold at higher prices than hybrids, and collectors complain that there are too many hybrids on sale, and that buyers of pure-bred alligator turtles are often swindled.
However, it is unclear what species are being hybridised. Although three species of Alligator snapping turtle have been recognised (previously considered as subspecies), they look almost identical, and hybridisation offers no obvious gain. It is, however, possible that Chinese turtle farmers have managed to produce common snapping turtle x alligator snapping turtle hybrids on commercial scale, selling them as alligator snappers.
According to internet chats and forums, whenever choice is available, Chinese collectors prefer non-hybrid, wild-caught, imported snapping turtles. Considered to be of "better quality", wild-caught turtles command prices many times higher than do domestically-farmed animals. The practice of selling captive bred turtles as wild-caught is also commonplace.
“Many people are saying that all the imported hatchlings of alligator snapping turtles are fake, that there are no imported hatchlings (on the market) – nonsense! If you don’t have what it takes to get hatchlings (from abroad), does that mean that others cannot either?” wrote one collector.
Some Chinese snapping turtle aficionados, however, say that there are no differences between wild-caught and captive-bred snapping turtles:
“As for what is better - imported or home-bred, I say firmly – they are all the same, both can be good or bad. No need to worship the imported and reject the home-bred, the key thing is the quality of hatchlings. Why worry if they were raised in captivity? Snapping turtles have no inherent inferior and superior forms, such differences are all acquired in captivity.”
Snapping turtle import business seems to be thriving. But one collector posted a warning those who want to make a quick buck bringing wild snapping turtles in their luggage to China:
“So, you decided to bring them yourself from the US? What is the most you can put together? You brought 10, is that a lot? 100? Big shots in the import business bring in thousands!”
Turtles and tortoises are amongst most traded animals in the world. HKU’s Species Victim Impact Statements (SVIS) Initiative have prepared Species Victim Impact Statements for more than twenty endangered turtle species that are commonly intercepted by customs. These species include Japanese leaf turtle, golden coin turtle, northern river terrapin, Beale’s eye turtle, Indian roofed turtle, pig-nosed turtle, Reeves’ terrapin, Vietnamese box turtle, Yunnan box turtle, Zhou box turtle, and others.
The SVIS provide judges and prosecutors with information about the species and the harm done by removing them from the wild. SVIS have already been used to great effect by Hong Kong’s judiciary and courts in turtle smuggling cases.
To request Species Victim Impact Statements, legal professionals can contact the founder of the SVIS Initiative, Professor Amanda Whitfort: firstname.lastname@example.org