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BREAKING THE SHELL OF THE PET TURTLE TRADE Author: Bruce Coetzee The clandestine nature of conservation is quickly identified by images of rhinos or elephants in distress. These images conjure reactions ranging from remorse for humanity's indifference in protecting these majestic beasts, to sentiments of anger, at the ruthless plunder of nature's beauty. The wayside often leaves lesser-known threatened species. However, one particular interest, that of reptile protection and preservation, has received far less attention than they deserve, above all others. In South Africa, the collection and sale of turtles and tortoises have traditionally been ignored, as a narrow interpretation of environmental conservation seems only interested in safeguarding those creatures which have become platforms to engage public interest and bolster conservative efforts. The alarming popularity of keeping turtles as pets is a pressing issue, and unscrupulous traders trap and then sell wild specimens regularly with no regard for these animals whatsoever. In some African countries, the consumption of turtle meat is considered a normalised practice. In contrast, many African nations utilise shells and body parts in traditional folk medicines, leading to the drastic decline of wild populations. The trend has resulted in several compounding issues related to systematic environmental collapse. Many endemic turtle species help support various organisms that fail to survive in the natural order without the actions of these reptiles. The question as to whether turtles may be kept as pets in South Africa results in an ambiguous answer, and it is both a yes and no, depending on the species of turtle in question. Turtles are, strangely enough, not cited as a protected species according to South African law; however, specific turtle sub-species are listed as" protected animals" as a requirement of international CITES regulations unforced by the current SA laws. Loggerhead turtles, leatherback turtles and the lesser-known Olive Ridley turtle are listed as protected species, according to current legislation. It is illegal to trap, trade or hunt any of these turtle species, and the penalties are severe for anyone found contravening these laws. The demand for indigenous turtle and tortoise species abroad has grown exponentially over recent years due to the ease with which specimens can be acquired. Coupled with the physiology of reptiles, has made them a target for illegal collectors, who can ship and transport specimens with little or no effort.
Adding to this expansive dilemma are some alarming facts presented in a study conducted by Ban Animal Trading and the EMS Foundation. The investigations and findings were subsequently published in The Extinction Business Investigative Report, and the third series of the report deals with South Africa's trade in reptiles and amphibians. The investigative report highlights some fundamental truths that are still the main contributing factors strengthening the decline of turtle and tortoise populations in South Africa. Committed efforts do, however, exist, and it has become clear that if we allow these creatures to disappear from the natural cycles within nature, we are essentially steamrolling the inevitability of extinction for several organisms dependent on them for life! Respect the gift of life regardless of size or species, we are all connected in a complex ecological circle, and our survival is tied to that of every living creature on our earth!