The data that can help conserve turtles in their natural habitats

The illegal trade in ivory and pangolins often grabs the headlines, but many species of reptiles are also under severe threat in Asia, and in China more specifically. In the past, turtles were seen, primarily, as a source of food, and traded in high volumes at relatively low prices. Today, however, individuals from rare species, to be kept as trophies or used as breeding stock, can fetch between HK$40-50,000.



Professor Jonathan Fong of Lingnan University’s Science Unit has a particular research interest in the phylogeography and population genetics of Asian amphibians and reptiles. One of his current research projects focuses on the big-headed turtle (Platysternon megacephalum) and the Beal’s eyed turtle (Sacalia bealei), both being freshwater species. As in his study of the Romer’s tree frog, Professor Fong is looking at the theory of population genetics and attempting to gain a greater understanding of the relationship between populations of the species. The hope is that his findings can help in their conservation.


The big-headed turtle and Beal’s eyed turtle are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species as endangered species, and Hong Kong is in unusual situation of still having extant populations of both. Though these turtles live for a long time, their reproductive cycle is a protracted process and over-hunting on the Mainland has led to their almost total eradication there. But the level of economic development in the SAR has meant they are no longer viewed as a food source by Hongkongers, and the existence of country parks has provided them with supportive habitats. However, because their long-term survival cannot be guaranteed, Professor Fong believes it is important to study them as soon as possible.




Having been awarded HK$1.03 million of funding from the Research Grants Council, he is working on this project with his Science Unit colleague, Professor Sung Yik Hei. Professor Sung has been conducting ecological studies on the big-headed turtle over the past decade. Together with Professor Sung, he Is are using relatively new research methods to connect the work done on the species in the wild with a study of DNA samples, in order to develop an understanding of what needs to be done to help conserve populations in their natural habitats. This could involve, for example, the identification and protection of places where eggs are laid.




Samples of turtle DNA are taken by drawing blood or clipping a small part of the animal’s tail. While Professor Sung has gathered many samples from within Hong Kong, Professor Fong is collecting them from overseas. To this end, he’s collaborating with the  researchers working in the field in other countries and requesting samples from existing natural history collections in Europe and the US that were gathered from other parts of the world.


Professor Fong is hoping one of the applications of their work will allow them to repair some of the damage done by the wildlife trade, through the identification of the DNA “signatures” of recovered or confiscated individuals from endangered species, so they can then be returned to their countries of origin.

To know more about Professor Jonathan Fong's research projects, please click Lingnan Scholars.