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Pure Passion Turns Dark: The Unexpected Dangers of the Wild Turtle Trade

Seeking a companion during quarantine, Khánh*, a 25-year-old Hanoian, bought a baby turtle through a Facebook group. 

Khánh spent more than VND1 million on a newborn red-eared slider turtle, alongside a "house" equipped with a swimming pool, heater, purifier, and floating island. He named the medium-sized shelled friend Bin Bin.

"It is not complicated to take care of turtles. They don’t need a vast area, nor are they as pricey as some other pets. My budget is low, so having a ‘ninja’ to keep me company throughout social distancing is really nice," Khánh explains.

Rare elongated tortoises advertised on a Facebook group.

Nowadays, many young people reach out to turtle trading groups on social networks for similar reasons. Thanks to Khánh's introduction, I joined a turtle-lovers community with about 5,200 members on Facebook. In two months, from July to the end of September, I saw many messages from new prospective owners asking to buy turtles, and sales offers targeting pandemic needs like "relieve stress, dispel pandemic boredom.” Pets for sale are mostly juvenile tortoises and freshwater turtles, varying from exotic to native.

Beside ordinary turtles with reasonable prices ranging from VND50,000 to 100,000, unique specimens with eye-catching appearances are commonly included in promotional posts. The “catalogue” includes numerous species that have been categorized as endangered or need to be highly protected, such as snail-eating turtles, elongated tortoises, Asian box turtles, and so on.

As Nguyễn Thu Thủy, a representative from the Asian Turtle Program (ATP) shared in the virtual seminar "When wild animals are pets," authorities have recorded about 1,912 individuals of 15 different species on sale on the internet in the last 12 months. All in all, the turtle was the most-trafficked wildlife creature in the country in 2020, with 377 individuals rescued out of 1,132 wild animals saved in Vietnam.

The wildlife trade behind seemingly innocent fun

Many of these forums claim to exist just to share pet-keeping experience and knowledge about ornamental turtles, but there are sadly no — or very few — posts concentrating on features, habitats, and requirements to take care of them. Finding information and images on these forums is not as simple as I thought it would be because posts related to buying and selling endangered animals use slang phrases and typographical tricks. Khánh says: "At first, I didn't know about these regulations, so my original posts were erased."

Members of these groups strictly avoid typing out words such as “mua” (buy), “bán” (sell), “giá” (price), “thanh lý” (sale), etc. Instead, users add a period in between letters in order to avoid Facebook's censorship algorithm. Other tricks include using the rice emoji to indicate price (“lúa” is a slang word for money) and translating species names into English, such as "3G" for snail-eating turtles (rùa Ba Gờ) and "núi gold" for elongated tortoises (rùa Núi Vàng).

A post advertising a snail-eating turtle, an endangered wild species. The post appeared in mid-July on a Facebook group of turtle enthusiasts.

To make their business less conspicuous, shop owners selling rare species only post a photo of their contact information instead of typing it out, share merchandise photos in the comment section, or limit the number of turtles appearing in each photo.

Harming pets, burdening owners, and destroying the ecosystem

Khánh admits that, despite having invested heavily in Bin Bin on the suggestion of the store owner, he has little understanding about Bin Bin’s species: "I didn't ask questions about his origin, partly because I wanted to get him home as soon as possible, and partly because of the cheap price." Khánh had no idea that Bin Bin is from an invasive species. Red-ear sliders are easy to keep since they are well-adapted to the hot and humid temperature of Vietnam, yet they pose several threats to the local ecosystem.

As explained by Thủy, from the ATP, red-eared turtles and other exotic turtles will compete with native species for food, and at the same time spread diseases from outside to the local ones if they manage to proliferate in the wild.

A rescued turtle being treated by medical professionals. Photo: Asian Turtle Program

In spite of travel limitations due to the pandemic, the number of turtle rescues is still significant, according to Thủy. As many owners lack knowledge about the ideal habitat, care and medical needs of their pets, most rescued turtles are in serious danger: broken legs, broken tails, severe fungal infections, cracked and perforated shells, etc. “Turtles have a slow metabolism and, as a result, slow recovery. An individual turtle can take months or years to fully recover,” she explains.

Apart from the damage caused to the turtles themselves and the ecosystem, this trend may pose health risks to owners and handlers, such as salmonellosis due to bacteria common in reptiles. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the bacteria can infect people via physical contact, leading to diarrhea, fever, stomach pains, typhoid, or even death.

A while into our video call, Khánh glanced at Bin Binh's terrarium and turned to me: “I’m suddenly a bit worried. I can’t return it to the wild because it’s a gluttonous invasive species. Rescue centers won’t take him either. I guess I’ll have to do a really good job taking care of Bin Bin.”

*This name has been changed upon request by the subject.

Cúc Phương Turtle Conservation Center is undertaking efforts to rescue, care for, and release tortoises and freshwater turtles saved from the illegal trade into the wild. Visit the center's Facebook page here to provide information or learn more about turtle conservation.

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