US Traffickers Cater to Asia's Taste for Turtles

US Traffickers Cater to Asia's Taste for Turtles
US Traffickers Cater to Asia's Taste for Turtles

A trial begins next week for a man charged with trafficking thousands of protected turtles captured in New Jersey, an unlikely hotbed of wildlife poaching that has helped supply China with a culinary delicacy that is hard to find in Asia.

David Sommers, 64, is accused of plucking some 3,500 diamondback terrapins and their eggs from the coastal marshes of southern New Jersey and selling them in violation of the Lacey Act, a federal statute that prohibits the trafficking of wildlife captured or killed in jurisdictions where it is illegal, Reuters reported.

Asia, where native populations of turtles have been depleted, is fueling a surge in turtle poaching across the United States, wildlife advocates say.

Many Asian consumers love the taste of their meat or covet turtles with dramatic-looking shells as pets. The turtles' flashy shells actually evolved as protection from predators in nature.

Poaching devastates wild turtle populations because the reptiles are slow to mature to reproductive age, said biologist Brian Williamson of the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, New Jersey.

Most diamondback terrapins, a particularly prized species, must survive to age eight before they can lay eggs, which means evading predators including raccoons, skunks, seagulls and humans.

The institute, built on a marsh about 19 km north of Cape May, New Jersey, helps return confiscated turtles to the wild, including the 3,500 reptiles that Sommers is accused of snatching.

Sommers, who goes on trial in Philadelphia next week, is also charged with smuggling turtles to Canada in 2014 in a package falsely labeled as a book.

   Unknown Scale

To be sure, the full extent of the underground turtle trade is unknown. But wildlife advocates say buyers in Hong Kong and China accounted for 55% of legal exports of US live, wild turtles from 2011 to 2015, the most recent data available. That trade was worth $31 million.

Legal exports have declined in recent years as states tighten protections. In August, Texas became the latest to ban commercial turtle hunts, with only six states still allowing unlimited turtle trapping.


Add new comment

Read our comment policy before posting your viewpoints