Cocaine, guns and turtles
Trafficking illegal materials is big business! The gathering and distribution of animals or animal parts is now the fourth largest contributor to the illegal trade of goods, with annual revenues estimated in the billions. Animal trafficking often provokes images of large, far away, exotic animals like the mighty elephant and its ivory tusks or tigers with their “medicinal” bones and fashionable fur. These plights are often hard to relate too because they feel like they are happening a world away, but what if it was in your own backyard?
In reality poaching and smuggling of our Ontario turtles is a big problem especially since seven out of eight of our native Ontario turtles are considered Species at Risk. A few reasons for our diminishing turtle population are habitat loss, road mortality and increased nest predation. Turtle trafficking is adding to these problems because it removes large numbers of the reproductive adults from the wild, thus further stressing the already limited population, and decreases the population’s ability to bounce back.
Ontario turtles that are highly prized for the exotic pet trade include our endangered Spotted turtle for its cute and tiny size, our endangered Wood turtle for its beautifully colors and inquisitive personality, and our threaten Blanding’s turtle for its cheery and bright appearance. All three turtles fare poorly when housed out of the wild environment they grew up in. The illegal harvest of our threatened Spiny Softshells and special concern Snapping turtles commonly occurs for upscale food markets. Although harvesting Snapping turtles with a hunting licence is legal, it’s not recommend to eat turtles as they are known to contain many toxins, such as heavy metals, which build up in their fat through the process of bioaccumulation.
The Toronto Zoo and Adopt-A-Pond, the Toronto Zoo’s Wetland Conservation Programme, has partnered with Crime Stoppers and provincial authorities to launch a campaign to help increase public awareness of the illegal trade of turtles and how it is on par with the organized trafficking of drugs and guns.
The possession of native turtles species in Ontario is highly regulated so if you see any in supermarkets, restaurants or pet stores, “[it’s] worth investigating, because the likelihood of that being legal is very low,” said Andrew Lentini, the Toronto Zoo’s Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles.
One of the best ways to help Ontario turtles is joining a Citizen Scientist group such as Frogwatch Ontario or the Zoo’s Ontario Turtle Tally program, which record sightings of turtle species and disturbances to habitat. Reporting your observation is a great way to protect and guard our Ontario species because it’s generally these volunteers that are most likely to notice a poaching attempt first.
You can also anonymously report any suspicious activity to Crime Stoppers or to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry tip line (1-877-TIPS-MNR, 1-877-847-7667). This can include anything from actually witnessing turtles being collected from the wild, to a native species spotted at a pet store or restaurant, to persons carrying snares, nets, cloth bags or buckets in wetlands. Reporting crimes, and increasing awareness are a huge part of saving our Ontario species, so let us all do our part and report suspicious behaviour before these crimes happen again!