December 08, 2016

By Jeff Dawson, Herpetarium Keeper

Editor's Note: Turtles have been on the planet for 300 million years. But today, turtles are in real trouble. Roughly half of the world's 335 species of turtles are currently in danger of extinction. The threat to turtles is greatest in Asia, where human cultures have long hunted turtles for use as food, traditional medicines and, more recently, pets. Combined with habitat loss and pollution, over-hunting has now driven many Asian turtle species to the brink. The enormous Asian demand for turtles also affects other turtle populations, including some here in the US, Turtles from the United States and from around the world have been sent to Asia. Still, there is hope for these unique and likeable creatures. Conservationists, like Jeff Dawson, a keeper in the Saint Louis Zoo's Charles H. Hoessle Herpetarium, are working hard to save endangered turtles. Jeff's interest in helping turtles has taken him to Vietnam and Cambodia and with the support of the Saint Louis Zoo, most recently to China. Here, he reports on his latest efforts, which offer some good news for one imperiled species of turtle.

Black-breasted leaf turtle hatchling Black-breasted leaf turtle hatchling

On November 7, after 116 days of incubation, the Saint Louis Zoo's Herpetarium welcomed a new addition—a hatchling black-breasted leaf turtle. This exciting event was only the second time that this endangered species has successfully reproduced at the Zoo. Although the delicate young turtle is currently being cared for off-exhibit, visitors can see adults on display in the Herpetarium.

As a zoo keeper, my goal is to insure conditions are appropriate for animals in my care. However, the requirements of each species are a little different. To provide the best possible care, I typically try to learn as much as possible about how a species lives in the wild. Adequate knowledge of a species' biology is also important for field conservation efforts.

Turtles for sale in a Hong Kong pet market Turtles for sale in a Hong Kong pet market

Unfortunately, little is known about black-breasted leaf turtles in the wild. Many basic questions have not yet been completely answered, and time may be running out to resolve them. Native to the forested mountains of southern China, northern Vietnam and Laos, black-breasted leaf turtles are threatened with extinction. The main threat to the species' survival is over-hunting. These small, attractive, charismatic turtles are primarily caught for use as pets. In the past, these turtles were exported to pet shops in the U.S., Europe and Japan. Today, they continue to be sold at markets within China and Vietnam.

In an effort to learn more about this rare and enigmatic species, I am collaborating with colleagues from two Chinese institutions—Peking University and Hainan Normal University. This past spring, I traveled to Hainan Island, China, to participate in field work. The objective was to conduct surveys and find an appropriate study site for further research on species.

The mountains of Hainan Island The mountains of Hainan Island

About half the size of West Virginia, Hainan Island is the smallest province of the People's Republic of China. Hainan is also China's southernmost province, located just off the coast in the South China Sea. Most of Hainan has a tropical climate, but temperatures on the mountains in the center of the island remain cool and mild. Many of the peaks are over 4,000 feet high and are frequently shrouded in clouds and mist. The high humidity there results in lush plant growth and dense forests, making turtle spotting difficult. Black-breasted leaf turtles were confirmed to live on Hainan only a decade ago.

Keeper Jeff Dawson in the montane forest of Hainan Island Keeper Jeff Dawson in the montane forest of Hainan Island

To reach the island from the U.S., I traveled to Hong Kong and then flew to Haikou, the capital city of Hainan. There, I visited Hainan Normal University, where I visited research facilities and shared my knowledge of turtle care and reproduction with instructor Lin Liu and his students. Afterward, I traveled with Daniel Gaillard, from Peking University, to the town of Yinggen in the center of Hainan.

Yinggen served as our base for a few weeks while we surveyed the surrounding rural villages and mountains for turtles. We talked with local people and examined turtles in the villages to obtain data on current and past levels of turtle hunting and trade in the area. Our work with the villagers led to their guiding us into the mountains and showing us where and how they look for turtles.

From the local people we learned that black-breasted leaf turtles are usually found on mountain ridges above 2,500 feet. Getting to these locations required strenuous hikes of four to seven hours up steep slopes. Once we reached areas suitable for the turtles, we collected data on the habitat. We also searched for turtles in the leaf litter and among the trees, bamboo and large rock boulders. Our efforts were rewarded with the discovery of a single wild black-breasted leaf turtle.

Female black-breasted leaf turtle found in the wild Female black-breasted leaf turtle found in the wild

Was it worth all that work for just one turtle? Absolutely! With so little known about the species in the wild, every bit of information helps. Our find marked the first documented wild locality of the species on Hainan. Previously, scientists had only observed black-breasted leaf turtles in the villages. Also, our initial data collection has begun to enable us to answer questions about the biology of the species.

In the spring of 2017, I will be returning to China. My colleagues have identified another site as being suitable for a long-term research project and have received funding to continue our research. We will be further investigating the geographic distribution, habitat, movements, diet and genetics of the species. Our hope is that this pioneering work will result in knowledge that ultimately benefits all black-breasted leaf turtles, both in zoos and in the wild.