The Chinese probably eat the world’s greatest diversity of wild beasts. As their national appetite grows, American biologists are wondering, where have all the turtles gone?
By Craig Simons
There is an often repeated Chinese joke that says, “In southern China people eat everything on four legs except tables, everything that flies except planes, and everything in the water except boats.”
I had heard the saying before and already knew that China is arguably the world’s most adventurous culinary destination. Over the decade I had lived in China, I had learned that almost everything that moves is considered edible. I had been served snake soups and tiny pigeons roasted on long skewers. At a banquet in Sichuan province, the host had placed a heaping mound of fried bees in front of me. I once reluctantly joined two friends for a boiling hot pot meal that included the genitals of various animals. I had passed countless restaurants displaying a wide array of unusual food: in backwater towns, restaurants commonly displayed the skinned carcasses of cats and dogs, their muzzles frozen in permanent snarls; in wealthier cities, seafood was more common—giant shark fins, sometimes tied in red bows and always bearing outlandish price tags, held prominent space in front windows; turtles and fish peered with dull expressions from dirty glass tanks.
And I had seen more exotic fare. At the edge of a national park in Hunan province, a restaurant owner had shown me a thick black snake that she said was called the “three-step”: one bite, and the victim would take three steps before collapsing. Boiled, it cost a few hundred yuan. Outside a wildlife sanctuary in Sichuan province, an official happy to be hosting an American guest presented me with a plate of what he said was a wild local deer. He told me it had been killed in the park and was healthier than farm-raised animals. To maintain our friendship, I took a few bites of the tough, gamey meat. A Chinese friend described being served meat from wild pangolins and monkeys at an expensive restaurant in southern China.
The most eccentric fare was rare, but it quickly became obvious that the Chinese do eat probably the world’s greatest diversity of beasts. For his book about Chinese medicine, Richard Ellis found evidence of Chinese diners consuming a wide variety of unusual species—among them porcupines, foxes, badgers, boars, squirrels, mongoose, leopard cats, raccoon dogs, rats, civet cats, chipmunks, gerbils, peacocks, cobras, pythons, salamanders, water monitors, and nutria (large, semi-aquatic rodents indigenous to South America).
Wang Song, China’s early CITES negotiator, believed that China’s open-minded attitude toward food was rooted in its beliefs in traditional medicines. “Because we have this idea that every animal part has medicinal benefits, we eat everything,” he said. “What’s so good about pangolin? Why do people want to eat it? But they do and now there are no pangolins left in China. If only a small portion of us get rich, we can eat out most of the world’s wildlife.”
The scale of China’s—and, in the larger picture, Asia’s—demand for wild species was driven home to me by Peter Paul van Dijk, the deputy chair of the IUCN’s Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, the scientists responsible for monitoring the health of the world’s terrapins. I had sought out van Dijk after coming across a document titled “Emergency Rulemaking Request to Repeal Arkansas’ Turtle Collection Law.” Signed by a half-dozen environmental groups (including the Audubon Society of Central Arkansas), the report petitioned the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to restrict the commercial harvest of wild turtles, some species of which the organizations worried faced imminent extinction due—strangely enough—to Chinese diners. “Over the last decade, conservation biologists have cautioned state wildlife agencies that freshwater turtles in North America are being increasingly targeted to supply food markets in Asia, particularly in China, due to depletion of wild populations of Asian turtle species,” the petition stated, adding that although U.S. turtle harvest records were poor, the few data points that existed were worrisome. Arkansas government figures showed, for example, that licensed collectors had removed more than half a million wild turtles from the state between 2004 and 2006; data from the Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, airport showed that “more than 256,638 wild-caught adult turtles” were exported to Asia between 2002 and 2005. Overall, the experts estimated, the total trade in U.S. turtles likely added up to “thousands of tons per year.” After mystifying trips halfway around the world, most of the animals probably ended up in the stomachs of Chinese diners.
In one sense, the wild turtle trade was just another example of how China’s rise was reconfiguring local ecologies around the world. But it also struck a personal chord. Growing up in Kentucky, I had frequently found box turtles in various stretches of woods and rural areas. Occasionally, I adopted one as a short-term pet. Unlike with tigers or elephants, the stakes seemed imminently graspable: few people will ever be lucky enough to see a wild tiger, but almost every American could find a turtle.
The burgeoning trade surprised me: I had seen turtles for sale at hundreds of Chinese restaurants. But it still seemed improbable that decisions by diners in Beijing or Shanghai could contribute to the extermination of entire American species. Yet that was at risk of happening.
Van Dijk directed Conservation International’s tortoise and freshwater turtle program and, on an unusually muggy August morning, I made my way to the group’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters. Like Washington, D.C., Arlington has the feel of bureaucratic blandness: white bunker-like buildings were ringed by golf course–like yards and carefully pruned trees. Inside, however, the group celebrated the natural world: dozens of posters showed wild elephants, birds of paradise, sharks, and communities of people living in close communion with nature.
Perhaps because Conservation International conveys that sense of the natural world, van Dijk struck me as vaguely elfin. He had a tight-cropped, reddish-brown beard flecked with white and moved with quick efficiency that hinted at years spent looking for turtles across Southeast Asia. When we met, he handed me a business card emblazoned with a photograph of a monarch butterfly and the sentence “People need nature to thrive.”
As we started talking, his elfin appearance was enhanced by his obvious love of the natural world. A Dutchman by birth, he had been eight when he adopted his first turtles from a couple “looking for a place to get rid of four turtles because they had grown too big and one had bitten the finger off their daughter, or something like that,” he told me. From there, he had grown his collection until he had a greenhouse full of the animals, and soon enough he moved on to studying them, earning a doctorate by tramping through the forests of western Thailand.
Roughly halfway through a decade in Thailand, however, van Dijk noticed that he was having a harder time finding wild Asian tortoises. He began to hear stories about traders buying large numbers of turtles to ship to China. In 1999, he attended a meeting with other Asia-based turtle experts and realized that what he had thought were “individual, localized occurrences” weren’t individual or localized at all: “I realized we were seeing the same massive, continent-wide process at different places and different times,” van Dijk told me.
While the trade had hit Vietnam first, it had quickly emptied their forests and spread to Laos, Burma, and Indonesia. “You just saw a pattern of expanding concentric circles over the years. Every couple of years, the trade moved further. And that’s when I said, ‘Okay, I can spend the rest of my career chronicling the extermination of turtles or I can try to do something about it.’ So I decided to do something about it.”
The first thing van Dijk did was take a job with Traffic, studying the impact of the turtle trade on wild populations—a task that turned out to make interesting science. Like sturgeons, orangutans, and elephants, turtles take many years to reach sexual maturity—an average of 15 to 20 years is a good ballpark figure. They also experience what scientists refer to as “low juvenile survival” and “high adult survivorship”: only a few hatchlings survive their first few years; however, those that do reach maturity almost always live human-length lives. A common box turtle found in the woods of the U.S. could easily have been alive during World War I.
That combination makes turtles particularly vulnerable to collapse when people start carrying a few away. One recent study found that taking only two adult female turtles from a population of 200 could halve the total population in 50 years. (1) “By removing an adult turtle from its environment, you’re not just taking one turtle, you’re taking 30 years of eggs,” van Dijk explained. “When you’re harvesting turtles, you’re not harvesting sustainably. You can hit bottom before you even realize what’s happened.”
Before humans, that wasn’t a problem since adult turtles are basically indestructible. “The only things that can kill an adult tortoise are a human with a knife or getting caught up in a catastrophic forest fire,” van Dijk said. But that is precisely why China had become important, since it had suddenly supplied many knives.
When I asked van Dijk about the impact of China’s rising demand for turtle meat, he replied with a short history lesson. “The . . . single most influential person on Asian and therefore global wildlife conservation of the last couple decades is Deng Xiaoping,” he said. “In 1989, after the Tiananmen Square uprising, the Chinese Politburo decided that they needed to liberate the economy but retain the political structure, and that’s what they’ve kept for the last 20 years. The most important thing they did was make the Chinese yuan convertible. So now people could buy things on the open market, and since China had eaten its way and polluted its way through its own biodiversity, they basically started bringing in biodiversity to meet its demands. The market was there and the market was pretty insatiable.”
The sudden influx of demand was happily met by what van Dijk called “vast numbers of people in Southeast Asia who are perfectly willing to spend a day tramping through the forest to come up with a few turtles they can sell for a dollar to a trader who makes a few more dollars selling it to China.”
“It’s just a vast network of people willing to scour the countryside for biological resources,” he said. “It’s turtles. It’s pangolins. You name it. If it has trade value, it will be found and shipped.”
As with all species, China’s consumers do not bear full responsibility for what experts have taken to calling the “Asian Turtle Crisis,” but—as with tigers, rhinoceroses, elephants, and dozens of other creatures—it now bears much of it. Turtles have existed since the Late Triassic Era, roughly 220 million years, outlasting the dinosaurs; but today half of their species are listed by the IUCN as threatened, putting them on par with sturgeons and primates among the world’s most at-risk families. Three species—including the Galápagos giant tortoise, which was hunted to near extinction by hungry nineteenth-century whalers, a reminder of the impact of the West’s era of rapid development—are listed as “extinct in the wild.” (The last known surviving Galápagos giant tortoise—given the name Lonesome George by his keepers—died last June after a nearly century-long life). Twenty-six more species face “an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future,” according to the IUCN.
Partly because of their proximity to China, Asian species are particularly at risk. Only four Red River giant soft-shell turtles, a terrapin that historically inhabited the Yangtze and Red Rivers of China and Vietnam, are known to survive; the Northern River terrapin, an Asian turtle that changes color during its breeding season, is thought to have survived only because a wild-caught male was found—slaughtered—in a Bangladesh market in 2010. A 2011 report by the world’s top turtle experts stated that the “regional pattern of high extinction risk for Asian species is primarily because of the long-term unsustainable exploitation of turtles and tortoises for consumption and traditional Chinese medicine, and to a lesser extent for the international pet trade. . . .” The report, simply titled “Turtles in Trouble,” concludes that without “concerted conservation action, many of the world’s turtles and tortoises will become extinct within the next few decades.”
Van Dijk explained the speed at which Chinese demand has decimated Asia’s turtles by describing how long it takes to find wild turtles in Asia. In the early nineties, finding two or three turtles a day was unexceptional. Now, “if I go out into a random piece of land and walk around for a week, I’ll be lucky to find two,” he said.
As wild turtles have become rarer in Asia, the trade has been pushed further. While van Dijk didn’t expect American species to be wiped out by collectors, he worried that depleted populations could succumb to other problems, most notably pollution, climate change, and habitat fragmentation. “If collection reduces a population by 60 percent, that remaining 40 percent needs optimal conditions if it’s going to survive,” he said. “If that doesn’t happen, they might never recover.”
I had been trying to fit Chinese wildlife demand into the context of other threats facing global biodiversity, and after we finished talking about turtles, I asked van Dijk how non-specialists should think about China’s impact more generally. He leaned forward in his chair and rubbed his beard. “China’s just doing what the world has done before,” he said. “Even the Mayans overexploited nature. The big difference is the speed of the change.
“It took Europe a couple of centuries to destroy its environment. It took the U.S. about a century to get from a frontier mentality to where we are now. China is doing this whole process at breakneck speed. It’s doing it in just a few decades. And because of the globalization of trade, they can impact the environment globally.” And that’s a reality that’s hard to swallow.
1. Reed, R.N., J. Congdon and J.W. Gibbons. 2002. Report, Division of Scientific Authority, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Aiken, South Carolina.
Excerpted from: The Devouring Dragon: How China’s Rise Threatens Our Natural World by Craig Simons, published in March 2013 by St. Martin’s Press. Reprinted with permission.
Craig Simons has reported on the environment from a dozen Asian nations for Newsweek and Cox Newspapers. He has also written for Outside, Backpacker, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. A former Peace Corps China volunteer, he studied at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and—as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow—at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.