Why Buy Captive Bred Tortoises?

One weekend last fall I went to a reptile expo. It was the first one I ever attended where sales were not limited to captive bred animals. It was encouraging to see that 70-80% of all stock offered for sale was captive bred, yet there were still piles of wild-caught Russian Tortoises and Central American wood turtles in cardboard boxes, and adult Geochelone of several species stuffed sideways into tight rows. The latter were in containers so small that they did not have enough space to extend their heads. If these animals for sale were on display, I would hate to think how they are kept at other times. While it is clear that the visitors to these reptile expos and many dealers have not learned about the conservation values of captive-bred chelonians, it is also obvious that normal standards which apply to the humane treatment of animals don't seem to apply to turtles.

In the 1960s as many as 300,000 Greek tortoises (Testudo graeca graeca) were exported each year from Morocco to Great Britain (Lambert 1969). By 1974 the number exported dropped to 44,098 (Lambert 1979), in part because of regulation but mostly because of drained wild stocks. Like many people, by the early 1990s I was optimistic about the likelihood of a decline in the numbers of wild tortoises entering the pet trade. All tortoise species were listed in CITES. Appendix II in 1977, and there was a growing movement to stop the commercial exploitation of wild-caught tortoises. Improved husbandry techniques meant that captive-bred stocks could support the demands of hobbyists and pet dealers. Hobbyists became educated about the ethical, economic and ecological virtues of captive breeding. The conservation issues are now widely understood, but many also realize secondary reasons for buying only captive bred individuals. For example, in an earlier issue of Terrapin Tales (2.2), the editors published an article reprinted from The Bridge on 11 selfish reasons to buy captive bred turtles and tortoises. (This information was also widely circulated on the Web.) The general points of the article included higher quality animals and positive veterinary and health-related issues of captive-bred specimens. Unfortunately, despite the availability of information, not everyone is aware of the impact that removing turtles and tortoises from the wild has on native populations. Perhaps this ignorance is the result of rapid growth of the herpetoculture community, in which some of the newer hobbyists remain unaware of the issues. What ever the cause, the need to eliminate wild-caught tortoises from the pet trade cannot be over emphasized.

Several independent tortoise data sets, compiled at different periods in the short history of the mass exploitation of reptiles for the pet trade, all support the need for the cessation of trade in wild tortoises. The earliest information comes from 1970 and 1971 (Busack 1974), and it was the first report published after record keeping for shipping live animal became mandatory in 1966. The second set of figures comes from 1989 to mid-1994 (Humane Society 1994). These sets contain only United States import figures. The third set is of world pet trade activities between 1992 -1996 (Humane Society 1998). The latter only lists the top 100 reptilian taxa traded as live animals. Sixteen of these are chelonians, 15 of which are tortoises. Information from these reports is summarized in Table 1. Unless otherwise noted. the information presented here comes from one or more of these three surveys. This information clearly reveals that my optimism about a decline in the trade of wild-caught tortoises was, at best, premature and was probably unfounded.

While some of the imported animals listed in Table 1 are certainly captive-bred individuals (e.g., African Spurred Tortoise, Geochelone sulcata, 1992-96 period), it is safe to assume that most are not, and for many of the species (e.g., Russian Tortoises, Testudo horslSeldii) the legally exported animals are all taken from the wild, and nearly all are adults. Of the 31 species of tortoises documented in the pet trade, at least 12 have been shipped in numbers that would have a significant impact on the native populations of exporting countries. This represents over 25% of the world's total tortoise fauna. Rough estimates based on these figures indicate that the tortoise trade in the US alone now consists of a minimum of 18,000 imported animals annually. Based on available records of just three species of Malaysian tortoise (Elongated Tortoise, Indotestudo elongata, Asian Brown Tortoise, Manouria emys, and Impressed Tortoise, M. impressa), 35% of 8,300 exported animals went to the US and 61% went to Japan (Jenkins 1995). This and other available information shows that the US plays an important role in the world trade of tortoises. By 1996, the 15 most common pet trade species in the world market averaged at least 416.974 individuals exported a year. The numbers presented here are intended only as examples to illustrate the magnitude of both the US and global market. Miscounts are common, often deliberate, and identifications are unreliable.

Until all tortoises became covered by CITES regulations, species categories were often broad (to genus level) so species were not carefully monitored. Records of identification on the subspecies level are not kept. Ages and sizes are not recorded, and the number of animals that die prior to export are unknown. It is generally accepted that the published export totals are much lower than the actual numbers. US imports alone are believed to be some two to three times higher than what is reported to the US Fish & Wildlife Service (Humane Society 1994), but this is probably overstated (pers. comm. with personnel at US CITES of fice).

Table 1 shows that, out of 23 species of tortoises legally documented in the pet trade, at least 17 species were exported in significant numbers. At least half of these species have globally restricted distributions. For thirteen species the volume of trade escalated during the period of tracking, and for Russian Tortoises and Bell's Hingeback Tortoises (Kinixys belliana) the increase was exponential. For a few species a decline in the trade resulted because of reformed regulations of importing countries (Texas Tortoises, Gopherus berlandieri, from Mexico), moratoriums on export from countries of origin (Chilean Tortoises, Geochelone chilensis), or changes in regulations and enforcement of CITES regulations (Pancake Tortoise, Malacochers`s torIlieYi; Egyptian Tortoise, Testudo kleinmanni). It is important to note that there are no examples of self-regulation on the part of the pet industry or the herpetocultural community regarding importation of wild caught stocks. The numbers of tortoises disappearing from the wild are more alarming if one considers what actually remains as the remnants of wild local stocks. Genetic modeling now suggest that populations must contain 10,000 adults, or more, in order to maintain evolutionary viability. Because of mutations and cumulative genetic damage, there is a strong indication that extinctions will occur in only hundreds of generations if populations decline and continue to stay below these numbers (Culotta 1995).

Let's look at some hypothetical economics, ones based on actual figures, from the wild-caught pet tortoise trade. Michael Klemens tracked the marketing of Pancake tortoises in Tanzania. Brokers paid collectors the US equivalent of $0.05 per wild tortoise. Each broker received $0.38 per tortoise from local dealers. These turtles then were passed through a series of middle men or went directly to the exporter. The exporter received an average of $13.74 per animal from US pet dealers (1992-96), who in turn sold the animals to US wholesalers and pet shops. Retail price was as much as $150 per tortoise by the time the mass trade in this species was ending If we track the distribution of money through a theoretical shipment of 406 adult Pancake tortoises from the wild to apartments in Saint Louis, the collectors would get a total of $20. The local middle men and foreign exporters would get $6,496, and assuming all animals lived and were sold retail, US wholesale and retail dealers would make (after shipping and customs fees) over $62,000

Captive Bred Table 1. The trade in tortoises
SpeciesImports into US 1970Imports into US 1971 Imports into US 1989-mid 1994Global exports 1992-1996
Cherisa anqulata400403no data
Geochelone carbonaria0582536414207
Geochelone denticularia1252810324825173030
Geochelone chilensis057490
Geochelone elegans55569076120816
Geochelone pardalis2634041014730816
Geochelone sulcata0020168417
Gopherus berlandieri4500620080
Homopus spp.60132no data
Kinixys spp.--7284no data
Kinixys belliana1681911789224644
Kinixys erosa387118122446
Kinixys homeana0096958242
Testudo spp.995312918-
Testudo graeca3471082947326692
Testudo hermanni4555139019115482
Testudo marginata045108no data
Testudo kleinmanni005232084
Indotestudo elongata1052226068109
Indotestudo forstenli952912155
Manouria emys421044132254
Manouria impressa1833669no data
Malacochersus tornieri902107284no data

If 100% of the US net profit was reinvested to purchase more Pancake tortoises from Tanzania, it would feed enough money back into the system to move 4,512 additional animals from the wild. If 100% of the net profit of the middle men and exporters in Tanzania distributed back to the primary collectors, money from just the original 400 tortoises would pay for 129,520 additional Pancake tortoises to be moved. These numbers do not account for undocumented mortality at each step in the transport and marketing. Fortunately, because of the work of Klemens, the trade in wild-caught Pancake tortoises dried up and tortoise breeders in the US and elsewhere are now starting to produce quantities needed for the hobbyist trade. It would have been interesting to track the recovery of wild Pancake tortoise populations from the ones disseminated in the 1980s and early 1990s. However, now Tanzania is now trying to export wild-caught Pancake tortoises that they are marketing as captive-bred. The evidence for captive breeding is without meril (pers. comm. with personnel at the CITES office) so it is clear that animals are continuing to be removed from the wild since a market for them (or the local perception of one) became established in the 1980s.

A recent article in The Vivarium (Averbuck 1998) suggests that the purchase of wild-caught reptiles and amphibians can actually contribute to conservation. The premise of the article is that land owners in Third World countries will preserve natural habitats if they can obtain enough income from wild-caught animals to economically justify habitat protection. This idea is not without some philosophical merit, and I am in favor of alternative strategies for conservation. There are too many horror stories of enforcement of conservation regulations which have lost sight of the intent of the original laws. However, in the case of tortoises, the removal of animals from the wild is not a viable conservation strategy. Selling wild-caught tortoises is not a workable conservation alternative because of the relatively low densities of tortoises in their natural habitat, their slow growth rates, and studies which indicate that reproductive adults, at least, cannot be regularly removed from the wild without a total collapse in the population. The argument that landowners that would harvest tortoises from their property could be compensated enough to justify leaving the property in a wild state is absurd. The initial collection would decimate the population. The problem of poaching would not be solved, and the market for wild-caught animals would be perpetuated and perhaps expanded. It is unrealistic to think that individual property owners would do anything other than serve as laundering mechanisms for the local trade.

Even if property-owner licensing could be set in place (and this is unlikely, as much of the foundation of Averbuck's 1998 proposal is based on problems resulting from political corruption and the lack of control in exporting countries), the landowners could not compete with poachers, and prices would remain low until the animals became scarce on non-licensed lands. Furthermore, property owners could also pay for their lands from sales of animals from the lands of others, and the problems would be no different from those that now exist. Most developing countries cannot enforce national and international conservation laws nor can they compensate for good land management and conservation ethics. Some countries place a higher value on short term revenue than on long-term preservation of native wildlife; they ignore their regulatory responsibilities as designated by CITES regarding wild caught tortoises. These countries allow mass shipments of species with no understanding of local population status. Only a few countries (i.e., Venezuela, Argentina) have closed export of all tortoise species and CITES Appendix I animals are no longer part of international trade. However, in some cases countries which pass strict wildlife export laws simply have their animal stocks smuggled into neighboring nations to be exported. For example, because of Togo's relaxed wildlife laws thousands of hinge-backed tortoises (as well as other reptiles) were exported from this one very small west African country. The number of tortoises exported clearly exceeded the country's own supply. Tongolese officials tried to explain the surge in exports as the result of captive breeding. The USFWS demonstrated that these were not captive-bred animals, and that this was a clear violation of international CITES laws (Humane Society 1994).

Profits for countries exporting wild-caught tortoises vary. Figures for some better known, more common species are as follows: Bell's Hinge-backed Tortoises $3.90 each; Hermans tortoises, Testudo hermanni $8.86; Greek Tortoises, T. graeca $12.49 and Russian tortoises $4.03. Based on known export prices and current US retail prices the amount of money going back to exporting countries is in the 3% to 11% range (11 of 19 species for which comparative information is available).

Obviously most of the money made from wild-caught tortoise sales remains in the importing country where they are sold. Even expensive tortoises do not return much profit to the exporter. Until they were recently taken off the market, individual Testudo kleinmanni sold from $150 to $225. The amount going to the exporting country (not necessarily the country of origin) was $17.87. The turtle collectors only received $1 per animal. The idea of a landowner profiting from exports becomes even more absurd when one realizes that in most cases there are a series of middle men and the exporter himself is taking most of the local profit. It is na´ve for any retail purchaser to think that nay significant amount of a $200 purchase goes to help anything, let alone conservation, in the country of origin. The Egyptian tortoise is now considered one of the most endangered chelonians in the world, and while loss of habitat is a serious problem, the population crashed in about a five year period as a direct result of the pet trade.

Besides the potential for destroying entire populations through collection, there are repercussions for other native wildlife as well. Obligatory relationships between tortoises and taxonomically unrelated fauna are well-documented and some tortoises may even play key roles in the dispersal or germination of seeds (i.e., Iverson 1987). In addition, exotic tortoises which were released or which escaped into new environments are suspected to have introduced major diseases into wild populations (i.e., upper respiratory tract disease in US Gopherus populations). The introduction of exotic and noxious disease vectors (such as ticks) into new areas is possible when animals are kept in outdoor enclosures. An additional danger is that of altering the genetics of local populations. For example, the release of red-eared sliders in the West Indies has genetically altered many endemic stocks of Trachemys. Movement of native tortoises whiting a country or region can create problems for species like the desert tortoise where a complex of genetically distinct populations exists. Also, turtle collectors often do extensive damage to habitats making it difficult for populations to recover even if local collecting stops (Bartlett 1994). Nevertheless, the most serious danger to tortoise populations is the loss of adults of these long-lived slow-growing species. Tortoises have naturally high morality in the egg and juvenile stages of their lives which is compensated for by low morality and long life spans. For example, studies document that the removal of just one adult box turtle (Terrapene) per year can cause a local turtle population to crash (Doroff and Keith 1990). Long term survival of any chelonian species is impossible if adults are regularly removed from the wild. In a 13-year study on natural populations of the freshwater Yellow-bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta), Gibbons and Semlitsch (1982) found that only about 1% of the population was expected to reach the age of 20 years, yet it is the individuals on the upper end of the age classes that are responsible for most of the reproduction.

Stopping trade of wild-caught tortoises is something that every turtle and tortoise enthusiast can do something about. As people who appreciate turtles and tortoises, we should not be contributing to this serious international conservation problem. It is ironic that people who pride themselves as being ecologically minded enough to recycle cans and bottles can justify the commercial removal of tortoises from the wild for personal pets. Similarly, although many people are incensed about the removal of our box turtles from the wild for export to foreign markets, it is often these same people who fail to see the hypocrisy when they support similar exports from other nations.

Many of us are guilty of buying wild caught tortoises in the past, myself included. However, the time has come to stop this destructive practice. If you buy wild caught animals, it may be legal, but it is certainly not ethical , and, for heaven's sake, don't fantasize that you are in some way helping wild populations by making such a purchase! A few relatively simple steps can help protect wild tortoises around the world. Here are things you can do that will help:

  1. If you must have a tortoise, buy captive-bred individuals. Do not purchase wild-caught tortoises and do not purchase anything from businesses that sell wild-caught reptiles. Even money paid for captive-bred animals can be use to buy animals taken from the wild, so it is important to know how each establishment does business. Tell them why you cannot support their business.
  2. Make sure your local pet shops know the conservation problems that arise from selling wild-caught animals. Most pet shop owners and employees respect animals and have no idea that they are contributing to a serious global problem by selling wild-caught animals.
  3. Cancel memberships in societies where companies that profit from the sale of wild-caught animals advertise, and notify the organizations as to why you are canceling. Encourage editors of journals that allow such advertising to phase it out.
  4. Educate other people who buy and keep pet turtles about the specific problems wild populations now face.
  5. Support and respect laws and organizations that actually benefit wild populations. The answer to the control of the pet tortoise industry is in the hands of affluent countries, the developing nations are simply responding to a market we created. Indeed, the prices of several captive-bred tortoises species have dropped noticeably in the last three years and, in some cases, are considerably lower than those of imported animals. Buying a captive-bred tortoise is like buying two animals - the one you own and the one that has not been plucked from the wild to become your pet.

David S. Lee