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A Cambodian soft shell turtle for sale at a restaurant in Phnom Penh
A Cambodian soft shell turtle for sale at a restaurant in Phnom Penh. Eli Meixler

Slippery ethics in the turtle eating business

Fuelling Asia Pacific’s appetite for the shelled reptiles is a trade that mixes legal and endangered species – and it’s almost impossible for the average diner to know which kind they are consuming

L&F Seafood, a large wholesaler on Street 95, stocks a multitude of ocean creatures, from crabs to sea bass. Mudfish swim in a grey tank. But, squashed in frozen brown blocks of a dozen or more, a more unusual animal can also be found – turtle.

These are Asiatic soft shells, among the most commonly consumed turtles in Asia and imported from Vietnamese farms, explained Wei Vat, the cashier. The species, which live in freshwater, is the only kind he can legally sell.

Vat’s customers, mostly Cambodians and Vietnamese, sometimes ask if he has any other types of turtle – particularly hard-shelled turtles, used in Chinese medicine as a remedy for kidney aliments. The answer is no, he says. “The Fisheries Administration comes two or three times a year, and they would confiscate anything [other than the soft shells].”

A young employee of L&F Seafood, a wholesaler in Phnom Penh, prepares to scoop turtles from a tank they share with mudfish
A young employee of L&F Seafood, a wholesaler in Phnom Penh, prepares to scoop turtles from a tank they share with mudfish. Eli Meixler

Dealing in turtles is mostly illegal in Cambodia, where six of the 14 turtle species are endangered, some critically. The only legitimate options are to import them or buy from the single licensed farm. But a thriving trade that stretches from small provincial restaurants in Cambodia to Hong Kong fish markets makes them a valuable commodity and poaching abounds.

Earlier this month Wildlife Conservation Society, along with local authorities, rescued 23 turtles, many of which were either endangered or threatened, in Mondulkiri. “It is most likely that they were on the way to Vietnam, as they were taken only a few kilometres from the Vietnamese border,” said Alex Diment, senior technical coordinator for Wildlife Conservation Society.

Once on a farm, most of which are licensed and some with permission to breed rare species, poached animals can be “laundered” by mingling with their farmed counterparts. Then they are smuggled onward to markets in Hong Kong, mainland China and other parts of Asia-Pacific.

“They might be breeding a small number of [legal] animals, but it is not meeting the demand and accounting for all their sales,” said Tim McCormack, program coordinator at the Hanoi-based Asia Turtle Programme. The supply gap is bridged through poaching, he said.

“It is very difficult to regulate these farms because it is not easy to identify individual animals in the farm unless you have access to people who know the species [apart].”

An elongated tortoise (Indotestudo elongata)
An elongated tortoise (Indotestudo elongata). MAREK SLUSARCZYK

For this reason, he argues, it is best not to consume any turtles. “You could argue that by simply providing an available source of turtles for consumption it gives the impression that it is okay to consume all turtle species,” he said.

Even the proliferation of commonly sold Asiatic soft shell turtles may threaten at least one endangered species, said Sun Yoeung, project leader of Conservation International. At his Mekong Turtle Conservation Centre in Kratie, Yoeung works with a monastery to rescue and release Cantor’s giant soft shell turtles, thought to have been extinct in Cambodia until a population was discovered in 2007.

Due to similarities in appearance with the Asiatic soft shell turtle, Yoeung fears the two species may become confused at restaurants and markets. “Physically, [Asiatic soft shell turtles] are very similar to the Cantor’s turtle – it’s very hard for people to identify the species,” he said, adding that sometimes restaurant owners do not know the legality of their merchandise.

It is almost impossible for the average diner to know what they are getting at a restaurant, McCormick agreed. “People have to go out and research it on their own, and if they go to a restaurant they will not be represented with that information. But I think that the vast majority of people who consume wildlife don’t think about it.”

Nao Thouk, director of the Fisheries Administration, said capturing wild turtles can lead to up to a year in prison and a fine of up to around $1,250. He acknowledged, however, that the laws are rarely enforced.

To combat the trade, Thouk has taken to the road in order to educate people of the environmental costs of hunting illegal turtles. He plans to cover every province.

Back at Phnom Penh’s L&F Seafood,Vat, the cashier, said that he always tries to point his customers into the direction of his farmed products when they ask for something illegal.

“When customers come and they ask, I tell them that what we have are natural, farmed turtles,” he said.

THE ROYAL CONNECTION

Cambodia’s turtles have historically played a role in both religion and royalty in the Kingdom. Cambodia’s national reptile – known as batagur baska by zoologists and locally as the royal turtle – serves as a symbol of the royal family. The eggs of the royal turtle, which is among the world’s most endangered turtle species, are said to have once been reserved exclusively for meals of the royal family.

While the king no longer munches on royal turtle eggs, Cambodians do release turtles into the wild to mark religious holidays. Like Buddhists elsewhere in Asia, the release of captured animals into the wild is considered a good deed that will be rewarded in karma.

King Father Norodom Sihanouk, with Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk
The late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, with Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk, ceremonially sets free a number of turtles at a small temple in Siem Reap. AFP

But Sun Yoeung, head of Conservation International’s Mekong Turtle Conservation Centre, said the practice has some unintended consequences. Most of the turtles released come from pet stores that source their stock from abroad, he said, leading to the presence of invasive species in the Kingdom’s waterways.

“They are always buying them to release into the pond, particularly for holy days,” he said, adding that his centre now houses American red-eared sliders which compete with local species for resources in the wild.

But traditional beliefs, he said, can also serve the cause of conservationism. His turtle shelter in Kratie, which houses endangered Cantor’s soft shell turtles, is run with monks who aim to educate the public about the virtues of leaving the animals unmolested. They even draw religious markings onto the shells in order to dissuade locals from harvesting them.

“We need to be involved with the Buddhists because Cambodians believe in it,” Yoeung said.

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