Troubled Times for Turtles: Habitat Loss, Poaching Threaten the Ancient Reptile in Virginia

by Bob Hurley

The next time you see a turtle think of what life on Earth might have been like 220 million years ago.

Turtles have been around for that long. They saw dinosaurs come and go; survived the Ice Age; and with their distinctive shells, have defended themselves against a variety of predators.

And we need them. Turtles are important in balancing ecosystems. They protect water quality by removing harmful bacteria, like dead fish and animals. They control aquatic vegetation; cycle nutrients; and contribute to new plant growth by dispersing seeds. A decline in their population can signal problems for water quality or habitat loss.

Today, their survival is threatened around the world and here in Virginia. The primary causes: unsustainable – and often illegal — capture and loss of habitat.

“Turtles are this incredible legacy to the history of nature on Earth,” said Tom Akre, a Sperryville resident, who is a program scientist at the Conservation Ecology Center at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI) in Front Royal. “They haven’t changed in 220 million years and are now the most endangered group of vertebrates on our planet, with 60 percent of species threatened,” he said. “Turtles are the most traded four-legged animal group in the world, and that is a big cause for their decline.”

Expanding development in urban and rural areas also takes a toll.

Take the wood turtle, a threatened species in Virginia. It used to range across Northern Virginia, stretching eastward into Fairfax County.

“Unfortunately, urban development has wiped out a lot of the wood turtle’s habitat, and adversely impacted stream water quality. Its habitat is now limited to a few areas in the northern Piedmont region,” said J. D. Kleopfer, state herpetologist for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR). “I estimate the wood turtle has disappeared from 50 percent of its range here in Virginia.”

Wetlands destruction also is putting pressure on local populations of the spotted turtle. It is listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) by DWR. “Both the wood turtle and the spotted turtle are candidate species for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act,” Akre said. “One of our goals is to develop state-based conservation initiatives to keep those species off that list.”

Kleopfer worries too about the fate of a third species in decline — the box turtle. He said: “They are very popular as pets, so one of our objectives with the box turtle is to stop the collection for private use or sale, as well as raising general awareness about the importance of leaving turtles in the wild.”

Kleopfer noted it’s now illegal to possess box turtles that are native to Virginia or other turtles on the SGCN list, unless the owner registered its possession two years ago. That registration process is no longer active.

Conservation initiatives

Akre and his team at NZCBI have been paying close attention to the wood turtle and the spotted turtle and also are supporting the Clifton Institute in Warrenton, which recently launched a program on box turtles. Both groups coordinate with a regional conservation initiative for box turtles in Virginia and the Washington, D.C. metro area.

NZCBI conservation research coordinator, Jess Meck, who lives near Massie’s Corner, spends a lot of time in the streams and forests of Virginia’s northern Piedmont and in nearby West Virginia looking for wood turtles. “This area is at the southern end of their range, which stretches all the way to Nova Scotia,” she said. “Wood turtles are one of the most endangered turtles in North America, that’s why it is important we collect data on as many turtles as we can find.”

Because wood turtles are hard to find, NZBCI researchers use a new technology – eDNA – to locate new turtle populations in the wild. eDNA tests water samples for evidence of DNA left behind by turtles, making it easier and less expensive to find them. Monitoring and tracking also are used to follow turtle movements.

Wood turtles can live for 80 years, but they don’t reach sexual maturity until their early teens. Given low egg and hatchling survival, turtles can take decades to replace themselves, and disturbances to their environment, including removal of breeding adults, reduce their populations. The average generational age difference between adult wood turtles and offspring has been estimated at 47 years. For humans the average is around 25 years.

Meck and her associates search for healthy breeding populations of all ages and sizes. “Our surveys give us a good idea about the sustainability of a local population, help to identify critical habitat, and to develop conservation strategies to ensure their survival,” she said.

The Clifton Institute’s box turtle project, launched in 2022, focuses on identifying when the turtles are most likely to use open fields that are managed by mowing.

“As part of its mission, the institute recommends best management practices for grassland and shrubland restoration and mowing is one of those practices,” said Andrew Eberly, a habitat specialist for the Institute. “Box turtles often occupy open lands and are slow moving, making them vulnerable to haying and bush clearing. We want to avoid or eliminate turtle mortality.”

This year, the institute is expanding its research project to fields on several properties in Rappahannock County. Eberly plans to fit box turtles with radio transmitters to monitor their movements. “We will be looking at what habitats they prefer, when they are using the fields, and other factors such as weather conditions and soil types. We hope the data will enable us to inform landowners when and where to mow to best avoid box turtles,” he said.

Turtle trafficking

Turtles and tortoises are among the most threatened vertebrates in the world, with over 60 percent of species listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. A key factor driving that population decline is the global trade of wild turtles for pets, food, medicines, and cultural uses.

“It is a crisis scenario on the national level,” said Scott Buchanan, the state herpetologist for Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management. Buchanan also co-chairs the Collaborative to Combat Illegal Trade in Turtles (CCITT), a nationwide group made up of government biologists, law enforcement agencies, and nonprofit groups focused on eliminating the illegal collection and trade of North America’s native turtles.

No one knows the number of turtles snatched illegally in the U.S., but experts say it could be tens of thousands a year.

“Taking just a small number of adults from a local population of turtles removes reproductive potential that can lead to an immediate crash of that population. They simply can’t reproduce fast enough to make up for adults that were taken,” said Buchanan.

Turtles illegally taken in the U.S. are sold here and in Europe, but primarily to markets in Southeast Asia and China where wild turtle populations have been decimated over past decades.

“Turtles are sought after primarily for the pet trade and the demand is relentless, especially for North American turtles,” said Buchanan.

Why that high demand? Buchanan equated it to collecting baseball cards. “You want the best cards, show off your collection, and sell them for the most money.”

A patchwork of state laws with different regulations and enforcement penalties creates loopholes for traffickers and makes regional enforcement efforts difficult. Poachers can legally take turtles in one state and sell them in a neighboring state where their possession is illegal. In some states fines and penalties are modest. “The financial reward is high and the risks of getting caught and paying a big fine, or going to jail, are low,” said Meck.

Turtles most threatened by poaching in Virginia include the northern diamond-backed terrapin, wood turtle, spotted turtle, woodland box turtle, diamond-backed terrapin turtle, and the bog turtle.

To avoid tipping off poachers, wildlife biologists and enforcement officials interviewed for this story declined to give information about the areas where vulnerable turtle populations exist, species that are most sought after by collectors and poachers, and the prices some species can fetch on the illegal market.

A court case last year in North Carolina illustrates the huge profits that can be made from poaching. In this case the poacher was convicted, under the Lacey Act, in federal court of trafficking at least 722 eastern box turtles, 122 spotted turtles and three wood turtles. He personally received at least $121,000 in payment for those turtles. Their market value in Asia exceeded $1.5 million. He was fined $25,000 and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

A quick search on the webpage, “American Reptile Distributors,” lists turtles, including spotted and box turtles, “captive born” and “field collected” with prices up to thousands of dollars. The website includes a disclaimer cautioning visitors not to “attempt to order animals which are illegal in your state and which you do not hold a permit for.”

“It is a real problem in Virginia, especially with the advent of social media where a lot of folks are trading turtles across state lines in the virtual space,” said a special agent with the Virginia DWR, who asked not to be identified because he participates in a special program investigating illegal trade in reptiles and amphibians. “Poachers who engage in illegal turtle trafficking troll online for buyers or tap into existing networks. Many turtles are sold to legitimate distributors and pet stores as captive-bred when in fact they have been taken from the wild,” he said.

No place to go

What happens to turtles recovered during enforcement actions?

The DWR special agent said they sometimes recover a tremendous number of turtles in a short period of time. “Finding housing for them, where they can be properly cared for is pretty difficult,” he said. “A lot of these recovered turtles are in pretty bad shape and finding properly trained individuals to care for them is challenging.”

NZCBI researchers are developing a program to care for recovered turtles. “We are in early days, but it is possible the NZCBI could provide capacity for these confiscations of rare and threatened turtles in the U.S.” said Akre.

He further explained that a fully staffed receiving center could lead to increased confiscations. “Anecdotally, we have heard from law enforcement that they sometimes don’t interdict because there is nowhere to put the animals they retrieve, or where they put them is seriously insufficient.”

How about turtles as unwanted pets?

“A lot of people don’t understand what they are getting into when they pick up a turtle and bring it home,” said Kleopfer. “Turtles are extremely long-lived, not the easiest pets to keep, and once you bring them into captivity for an extended period you can’t just dump them somewhere as they have little chance of survival. It is inhumane and unethical.”

Kleopfer’s office often is flooded with inquiries from people who no longer want to keep their pet turtles. “I can’t tell you how many phone calls and emails our agency gets from people who want to unload unwanted pet turtles. There are so many out there that rescue shelters, zoos, aquariums, and other places won’t take them.”

“We strongly urge people to leave wild animals in the wild and know what you are getting into when you buy an animal at a pet store. If you do buy a turtle from a pet store, verify that it is captive bred and not collected from the wild.”

Over the past few years, the Rappahannock Nature Center has shifted its focus from handling reptiles and amphibians to observing them. “It’s much better to leave turtles and other animals alone in the wild,” said Sperryville resident, Rachel Bynum, the center’s director. “Kids are attracted to turtles and they have a natural inclination to pick them up. We teach them that you can learn more about animals through observation than handling.”

Akre carried his childhood fascination with turtles into a career in biology and wildlife conservation and is passionate about his mission to save North America’s threatened turtle populations.

“The United States is the leader in the world in terms of turtle diversity,” he said. “Today, turtles are commonplace to us, but if they became extinct, they would be a cause for wonder. We are losing an important part of our natural heritage with the decline of turtle species, particularly to a point where the loss might be irreversible. We can’t let that happen.”

Foothills Forum is an independent, community-supported nonprofit tackling the need for in-depth research and reporting on Rappahannock County issues. This column originally published in the Culpeper Times and is reprinted here with permission.