LU study: three species of HK wild freshwater turtle are disappearing Scholars and conservationists urge urgent action against poaching
23 May 2023
According to a study conducted by the Lingnan University (LU) Science Unit, three wild local species of freshwater turtle are on the brink of disappearing. Today (23 May 2023), on “World Turtle Day”, the LU research team and several conservation-focused NGOs urge the Hong Kong SAR Government to take action and stop the poaching that threatens the survival of Hong Kong’s rare and globally significant turtle populations.
Hong Kong is the last stronghold for globally threatened freshwater turtle species, as it supports breeding wild populations of two critically endangered species (Golden Coin Turtle [Cuora trifasciata] and the Big-headed Turtle [Platysternon megacephalum]), and one endangered species (Beale’s Eyed Turtles [Sacalia bealei]). However, for the past 15 years, researchers from the LU Science Unit studying and monitoring freshwater turtle populations in Hong Kong have noted these three species are disappearing due to poaching.
They found that the Golden Coin Turtle, the species most often trapped for over three decades, has likely become functionally extinct because no juveniles have been found. Furthermore, wild populations of the Big-headed Turtle and Beale’s Eyed Turtle have been extirpated or are no longer viable (less than two adults detected) in nearly 90 per cent of sites. What remains are a few small remnant populations. Sadly, poachers have been detected at all of these sites with the use of infrared cameras and over half of these remnant populations have declined drastically in the last five years.
Prof Sung Yik-hei, Assistant Professor of the Science Unit, estimates that there are only several hundred adult Big-headed Turtles, and less than 100 Beale’s Eyed Turtle adults left in the wild in Hong Kong. Given their low reproductive rate and the long time it takes them to reach sexual maturity, freshwater turtle populations are unlikely to recover after overexploitation. If the current extent of poaching continues, Hong Kong freshwater turtle populations will probably be eradicated in three to five years.
The critical status of freshwater turtle populations in Hong Kong has attracted the attention of NGOs and conservationists. Dr. Michael Lau, Founder and Executive Director of the Hong Kong Wetlands Conservation Association and a member of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles Specialist Groups (TFTSG) of IUCN, stated that “Although only few remnant freshwater turtle populations remain in Hong Kong, these small populations are probably among the most robust populations across Asia. Without these populations, these species would become extinct. As such, protection of the freshwater turtle population in Hong Kong is of global conservation importance.”
Earlier this month, several NGOs, academics and legal experts signed a letter to the Hong Kong Government expressing their concerns about wildlife poaching. Sophie Le Clue, CEO of the philanthropic environmental foundation ADM Capital Foundation who also signed the letter, said: “Urgent action is essential to strengthen investigation, enforcement and deterrent of wildlife poaching, otherwise, imminent extinction of freshwater turtles in Hong Kong is inevitable.” Three specific recommendations were made in the letter:
(1) Establish an operational protocol between the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) and Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) to facilitate routine and proactive involvement of the HKPF in the investigation and enforcement of poaching and illegal wildlife trade, similar to the protocol for the illegal felling and theft of incense trees;
(2) AFCD should set up a special anti-poaching enforcement unit to undertake regular, targeted night patrols; and
(3) Review and revise current shortcomings in relevant laws, including CAP.170 Wild Animals Protection Ordinance and CAP. 208 Country Parks Ordinance.
“Wild freshwater turtles have disappeared across most of mainland China, and the small populations that remain in Hong Kong represent a unique opportunity for conservation collaboration across the Greater Bay Area” said Prof Jonathan Fong, Associate Professor of the LU Science Unit. For example, if the freshwater turtle populations in Hong Kong can be effectively protected, a proportion of individual turtles could be used to help restore populations in streams throughout the regions where they have disappeared. However, accomplishing this requires urgent action to strengthen enforcement against poaching in Hong Kong.