PANAMA CITY— Countries from around the globe voted at the CITES conference today to restrict trade in 21 U.S. turtle species. The decision was made at the 19th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
The 21 turtle species are all native to the southeastern United States and include powerful snapping turtles, beautiful map turtles, mud turtles, musk turtles and odd-looking but lovable softshell turtles. Another 32 non-U.S. turtles also received trade protections.
“If turtles could celebrate, there’d be swamp parties all over the southeastern United States tonight,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, who attended the conference in Panama. “Turtles around the globe are gravely threatened by the pernicious pet and meat trades, but these U.S. species just got a much better shot at survival.”
Sought after as pets or for human consumption, many U.S. turtles are currently threatened by the international trade. Turtles are particularly vulnerable because they’re slow to reproduce, making it difficult for populations to recover after overcollection from the wild occurs.
“Turtles are being taken out of the wild around my home in the southeastern United States at an alarming rate,” said Dianne DuBois, a staff scientist at the Center who also attended the conference in Panama. “I’ll rest easier tonight knowing that so many of these species have received the international protections they’ve desperately needed for a long time.”
The turtle trade occurs in a “boom and bust” cycle. When one turtle population is depleted through collection, demand quickly shifts to a new species or population. Trade restrictions are critical because even turtle species not showing up in the trade today may still be at risk.
More than half the world’s turtles are currently threatened with extinction. Altogether, nations proposed protections for 53 turtle species at this year’s CITES meeting, and all 53 received protections, representing a global acknowledgement that international trade poses a major threat to turtles.
Two snapping turtle species, the alligator snapping turtle and common snapping turtle, were added to CITES Appendix II. International trade must now be sustainable and authorized through permits. Both species are traded in large quantities, primarily for meat. Alligator snapping turtles have been proposed for U.S. Endangered Species Act protections, based on a Center petition.
Five species of broad-headed map turtles received CITES Appendix II protections. These species are threatened by habitat loss and harvest for the pet trade. The U.S. lost 1.5 million map turtles to exports between 2005 and 2022. Map turtles have intricate designs on their shells that have contributed to their popularity in trade.
Twenty species of mud turtles received CITES Appendix II protections, and two species were listed under Appendix I, which bans commercial trade. These species are primarily threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, and the international pet trade. Illegal trade is also a threat to mud turtles, as several species have been documented in trade without proper permits.
Four species of musk turtles received CITES Appendix II protections. Musk turtles are threatened by habitat loss and the international trade. The U.S. lost 1.49 million musk turtles to commercial trade exports from 2013 to 2019; 60% of those exports were sourced from wild populations.
Three species of softshell turtles received Appendix II protections. Softshell turtles have a distinctive tubular snout and other unique features that make them desirable in the pet trade, and they are also traded for meat.