Besides climate change, one of the most serious threats to wildlife biodiversity is the illegal killing and trafficking of animals and plants. Although many existing laws aim to stop wildlife trade, it still remains one of the most lucrative illicit industries worldwide, with many endangered animals being exploited for their pelts, or used as medicine, aphrodisiacs, spiritual artifacts, or simply curiosities.
A research team led by the Arizona State University (ASU) has now estimated that over 1.1 million sea turtles have been illegally killed and trafficked between 1990 and 2020, with as many as 44,000 turtles exploited each year during the past decade in 65 countries or territories, and in 44 of the world’s 58 major sea turtle populations. Surprisingly though, the study also revealed that the illegal exploitation of turtles has in fact declined by 28 percent over the last decade.
“The decline over the past decade could be due to increased protective legislation and enhanced conservation efforts, coupled with an increase in awareness of the problem or changing local norms and traditions,” said study co-first author Kayla Burgher, a doctoral student in Environmental Life Sciences at ASU.
Moreover, most of the poaching during the last ten years occurred in large, stable, and genetically diverse sea turtle populations. “What this means is that most of these sea turtles came from healthy, low-risk populations, which suggests that, with a few exceptions, current levels of illegal exploitation are likely not having a major detrimental impact on most major sea turtle populations throughout the world’s oceans,” explained study co-first author Jesse Senko, an assistant professor of Ecology and Animal Behavior at ASU.
However, according to Professor Senko, this apparent silver lining should be approached with caution. “Assessing any illegal activity is difficult, and the take and trade of sea turtles is no exception, especially when it becomes organized or connected to crime syndicates. Our assessment also did not include eggs or turtle products, such as bracelets or earrings made from sea turtle shells that could not be easily attributed to individual turtles.”
The scientists found that Vietnam was the most common country of origin for illegal turtle trafficking, while China and Japan were the main destination for the trafficked turtle products. During the three decades investigated, 95 percent of poached sea turtles came from two species, the green and hawksbill turtles, both of which are currently endangered.
“Our assessment is an important foundation for future research and outreach efforts regarding illegal sea turtle exploitation. We believe this study can help conservation practitioners and legislators prioritize conservation efforts and allocate their resources to best help protect sea turtle populations from harmful levels of exploitation worldwide,” Burgher concluded.
The study is published in the journal Global Change Biology.