During our visit to Vietnam’s Cuc Phuong National Park, we got to see lots and lots of turtles at the Turtle Conservation Center (TCC). They currently house 650 turtles!
There was a lot of turtle trade in the 1980s and 1990s, mostly for food and traditional medicines. Turtles were used in Vietnam, and many were also shipped to China.
The center was started in 1998 to help address this growing problem. It’s now part of the Asian Turtle Program of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, and it’s the only center in Vietnam specializing in turtles. They rescue tortoises and freshwater turtles from the turtle trade. They also run programs to educate people about the value of protecting wildlife. And, the TCC has a breeding program, so turtle species can be preserved — and eventually released in the wild when possible.
We met Sarah Wahl there, who explained the center’s programs — and introduced us to her dogs. As part of her work at the center, Sarah trains dogs to find turtles in the wild. The dogs accompany TCC personnel on field surveys, to find out if there are still wild turtles in different areas. On one recent week-long trip, Sarah and her dogs found only one turtle — which shows how critically endangered many turtles are becoming in Vietnam.
Sarah’s dogs also serve other purposes. They protect against rats, which can eat turtles. They also serve as an early warning system in case poachers try to enter the TCC to steal turtles. Turtles are sold for medicines, pets or food.
Protecting Vietnamese Pond Turtles
For example, the Vietnamese pond turtle can fetch as much as $2000 in the turtle trade. This endangered turtle is endemic to central Vietnam (this means it’s native to the area, and found only there in the wild). It was thought to be extinct in the wild, surviving only in the turtle trade.
However, it was rediscovered in the wild in 2007 — there are two known wild populations. The TCC also has a population of Vietnamese pond turtles, but there is no current plan to release them — because they are so sought after in the turtle trade. That’s part of the reason the population of turtles at the TCC is so high.
Another reason the TCC has so many turtles is because there are local people around the Cuc Phuong area who have been hunting for generations. As a result, if turtles are released here, they will most likely be hunted.
However, some turtles are released in other national parks where it’s safer and they have a greater chance of survival – mostly in south Vietnam. For example, the TCC worked with ENV (see our previous post about ENV) to re-introduce 186 turtles to the Cu Chi Wildlife Rescue Station in south Vietnam. All are native to central or south Vietnam, and will be released into safe areas in the wild there.
Long Live the Turtle!
Many turtle species can live 60 to 70 years. We asked Sarah what she would say if she could speak to students in the U.S. about turtles. There isn’t a widespread problem with turtle conservation in the U.S., so Sarah said it’s good for students in the U.S. to think about how long turtles can live.
For example, the most popular pet turtle in the U.S. is the red-eared slider. These turtles can easily live for 30 years; some live to be 40 or more. However, the red-eared slider is listed as one of the 100 most invasive animal species worldwide.
In many places, where red-eared sliders have been released into the wild, they’ve outcompeted other turtle species. Red-eared sliders will eat almost anything — like frogs, and even rats that are bigger than the turtles themselves.
As a result, they’re considered invasive here in Vietnam and many other places. It’s illegal to keep or trade red-eared sliders in Australia, and the European Union doesn’t allow them to be imported. Although they are native to the U.S., even some U.S. states consider them invasive.
(Ever heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Apparently, they’re red-eared sliders, too.)
So, Sarah’s advice to U.S. students: it’s best not to release unwanted turtles into the wild, no matter where you live — they may be invasive. And if you plan to get a turtle as a pet, remember that it is a long-term commitment!
Study Guide Questions:
1. Can you name two of the three things that Sarah’s dogs are used for at the Turtle Conservation Center?
2. True or False: The red-eared slider turtle is good for the environment all around the world.
3. Why are turtles from the Turtle Conservation Center NOT released in Cuc Phuong?
4. True or False: You should think carefully before getting a turtle as a pet, because they live a very long time, and if you decide you don’t want them any more, it may be a bad idea to release them into the wild.