Turtles are in serious trouble. They are among the world’s most endangered vertebrates, with about half of their more than 300 species threatened with extinction7. We commonly hear about the plight of other animal groups; however, turtles are much more at risk of impending extinction than birds, mammals, amphibians, or sharks and rays, and paralleled among the larger vertebrate groups only by the primates (Turtle Taxonomy Working Group 2010, http://www.iucnredlist.org/, Hoffmann et al. 2010).
Turtles throughout the world are being impacted by a variety of major threats, to which many are gradually succumbing. They are being collected, traded, and eaten or
otherwise used, in overwhelming numbers. They are used for food, pets, traditional medicine—eggs, juveniles, adults, body parts—all are exploited indiscriminately, with little regard for sustainability. On top of the targeted onslaught, their habitats are being increasingly fragmented, destroyed, developed, and polluted. Populations are shrinking nearly everywhere. Species worldwide are threatened and vulnerable, many are critically endangered, others teeter on the very brink of extinction, and a few have already been lost forever, with eight species and two subspecies having gone extinct since 1500 AD (see table, p. 5).
The world’s living tortoise and freshwater turtle species are a remarkable evolutionary success story. There are about 328 currently recognized modern species (452 taxa;
Turtle Taxonomy Working Group 2010). Turtles have existed for about 220 million years, since the Late Triassic Era, outlasting their early contemporaries, the dinosaurs. Turtles and tortoises have evolved a remarkable armored shell that has remained relatively unchanged through evolution, and while other vertebrate species have evolved and gone extinct, the basic body form of turtles has remained an obvious testament to their success and their ability to survive millions of years of natural selection. However, the previously successful survival adaptations of turtles, including delayed sexual maturity, high fecundity combined with high juvenile mortality, and a long adult life-span with low natural adult mortality, have left turtle populations vulnerable to new and devastating threats posed by human exploitation and habitat loss.
Turtles and tortoises are major biodiversity components of the ecosystems they inhabit, often serving as key-
Desert and Gopher Tortoises in North America, Giant River Turtles in the Amazon basin of South America, Pig-nosed Turtles in Australia and New Guinea, Giant Tortoises in the Galápagos and Seychelles islands, and large Flapshell and Softshell Turtles in Asia—all represent major components in their environments and are part of the web of interacting and co-dependent species that constitute healthy functioning
ecosystems. Without turtles and tortoises, those ecosystems and the critically important human-welfare ecoservices they provide, would gradually suffer from the loss of biodiversity and degrade in ways still incompletely understood
to extinction, as none are expendable or unimportant. Increasingly, however, human activities are endangering many turtle and tortoise species while driving others into
We are facing a turtle survival crisis unprecedented in its severity and risk. Humans are the problem, and must therefore also be the solution. Without concerted conservation
action, many of the world’s turtles and tortoises will become extinct within the next few decades. It is now up to us to prevent the loss of these remarkable, unique jewels of
evolution. Without intervention, countless