In Asia, over 80% of turtle species are endangered. Turtles are not only heavily poached for traditional chinese medicine and pet trade, but they also face habitat loss which is increasing the stress on these already vulnerable animals.
The Beale's eyed turtle is an extremely rare species found in China and Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, there are only very few wild populations left, which is why OPCFHK has funded a project focusing on this particular species. The project was led by Dr. Sung Yik Hei from Lingnan University. The purpose of the project was to improve understanding on turtle ecology, refine local enforcement and protection strategies, and understand the current China turtle trade. The project conducted work in three major areas, including investigating turtle seizure information from online resources, using stable isotope analysis to study the difference between wild and captive turtles, and improving on existing turtle monitoring methodology.
The team consolidated and analysed turtle seizure data from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The media reports of seizure of turtles provided a good base data to outline the key trends of the illegal turtle trade, including the species, trading hotspots and major pathways where trading occurs.
Prosecution of illegal wildlife trade is sometimes hindered by difficultly in differentiating between wild and captive animals. Stable isotope analysis is an effective technique used in many species to differentiate between the two, which can help distinguish between legal and illegal sources and assist in reinforcing trade regulation. The research team evaluated the effectiveness of this technique and found a significant difference in chemical composition between the captive and wild individuals. This is a promising discovery that can help to identify wild caught turtles found in trade markets.
Turtle populations were monitored continuously during the period of the project using multiple camera traps throughout Hong Kong. These were used to detect illegal turtle hunting which helped to deter poachers and in turn, protect these key populations. Turtle surveys were also conducted twice a year to monitor the remaining populations. Selected number of Beale’s eyed turtles were tagged and radio-tracked for 3 months to collect data on their home ranges and habitat preference. This project has provided a better understanding of the turtle’s habitat needs and requirements which informs patrolling strategies and the use of camera traps has helped to protect these endangered species.
Most of the studied turtle populations, including the Beale’s eyed turtles’, have remained stable during this project. The results from this project has provided hopeful strategies and insights that can improve protection, patrols, and illegal trade prosecutions of turtles in Hong Kong. As freshwater turtles continue to be threatened across their habitat range, important work such as this Beale’s eyed turtle project is essential to safeguard their existence and improve their protection.