Asian Box Turtle Workshop Hosted in China

by Heather Lowe 

IMG_7449_optThe Asian box turtle Genus Cuora consists of 13 species, all of which have one thing in common, they are at very high risk of extinction. All but one of these species is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List as of 2011.  Five of these species are ranked among the 25 most endangered turtle species on the planet, four more can be found in the ‚Äútop 40‚Äù as assessed by the Turtle Conservation Coalition. Without any doubts, Cuora is the genus of turtle in most trouble in the world, threatened by the overharvest for the pet trade, turtle farms, food markets, traditional Chinese medicine and habitat destruction throughout its entire range.

In order to combat the eminent risk of disappearance of an entire genus, the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and the IUCN Tortoise & Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group (TFTSG) initiated a Cuora workshop to approach and evaluate potential ways to save these species both in the wild (at least trying to preserve some remaining habitat) and in captivity. The goal of this workshop was to create realistic action plans for each of the 13 species.

The first workshop was held August 19, 2010 in Orlando, Florida. A total of 35 participants from seven countries, mainly from the US and Europe, participated in this workshop. Unfortunately, there was a distinct absence of Chinese representatives due to problems obtaining US visas. Their participation was critical to the discussion, not only because most species of Cuora are native to China, but also because it is the Chinese market that has posed the biggest threat to most Cuora species. Due to their absence in Orlando, it was clear that a second workshop needed to be held in China to include as many Asian attendees as possible so achievable action plans could be identified.

A second TSA/IUCN Cuora Workshop was held in Gangkou, Guangdong, China from May 23-25, 2011. Our host was the National Gangkou Sea Turtle Reserve. Representing the TSA at this workshop were Rick Hudson, Cris Hagen, Brian Horne, Torsten Blanck and Gerald Kuchling. Holding this Cuora specialist workshop in China was critical in facilitating the opportunity for Chinese academics, students, biologists, NGO‚Äôs, turtle farmers, and Cuora specialist hobbyists to sit together in one room and open dialogue to tackle the issue of how to move forward with conserving all Cuora species. There were 50 participants (over 70% from China) representing nine countries.

The first day of the workshop provided presentations on the wild and captive status of Cuora species in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Days 2 and 3 put the entire group together at a roundtable to complete the IUCN Red List recommendations for all Cuora species, as well as evaluate them all, species by species, for all recommendations and actions that will lead to conservation priorities for this critically imperiled genus. At this workshop, it was recommended that two additional species of Cuora ‚Äì C. flavomarginata and C. mouhotii - be elevated to critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, bringing the total to 12 of the 13 recognized species ranked CR.  One species ‚Äì C. amboinensis ‚Äì  is still ranked  as Vulnerable.  A list of detailed recommendations for each species will appear in the August TSA magazine.

To combat the complex issues threatening this group of turtles, deliberate action is needed and a list of action plans and recommendations is being drafted as a result of the workshop. It was also suggested that the formation of a Cuora specialist working group may be beneficial. Time is running out rapidly for some of the rarest Cuora species. Without swift and decisive actions they will surely be gone from the wild in the very near future and without strict captive management plans, some might be gone forever sooner or later.