Despite all efforts to stop trading turtles in Asian food markets close to 10 million shelled reptiles die this way each year. Experts say it is causing the rapid extinction of some species of the shelled reptiles.
The centuries-old practice of using turtles for food and medicinal purposes - particularly in China - is a $700 million (EUR509 million) industry, Chinese conservationist Shi Haitao said during an international turtle expert meeting Thursday.
The number of conservationists working in China pales in comparison to the scope of the problem, he said.
"I realize there is a long road ahead, even though the situation of turtle conservation in China is improving," Shi said.
He spoke to nearly 200 experts from across the globe who gathered in Atlanta for the joint meeting of the Turtle Survival Alliance and the World Conservation Union's tortoise and freshwater turtle specialist group.
Some markets are selling fewer turtles than they did a decade ago. The Qingping market in Guangzhou, China, has seen an 80 percent decrease in the number of turtles sold since 10 years ago, Shi said. But the country still has no centers to house animals rescued from food markets or turtle breeding farms and has no nature reserves that can help build populations of critically endangered species, Shi said.
In the last few years the Turtle Survival Alliance has begun conservation work with 11 of the 20 most critically endangered Asian turtle species, said alliance co-chair Rick Hudson. The alliance is also working with states to pass laws prohibiting the commercial collection of turtles from the wild, he said.
"Our two greatest strengths are that we care and that we hit the ground running when we need to," Hudson told the group.
The meeting was sponsored by Zoo Atlanta, the world's only zoo successfully breeding the rare Arakan forest turtle, one of the more severely endangered turtle species. The zoo hatched two of the brown-and-tan spotted turtles a couple of months ago after breeding a pair of Arakan forest turtles rescued from an Asian food market.
The turtle - native to the Arakan hills of western Myanmar - was thought to be extinct before it was found in the food market in the mid-1990s.
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