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SCCF staffer joins national group to combat turtle trafficking

By SCCF - | Mar 10, 2021

SCCF Chris Lechowicz

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Wildlife & Habitat Management Director Chris Lechowicz recently joined the Collaborative to Combat the Illegal Trade in Turtles, which is made up of biologists and law enforcement personnel from state, federal and non-government agencies across the country. The group discusses current issues and trends involving turtle trafficking in the United States, devises solutions to combat trafficking, and protocols for the relocation of confiscated turtles.

It is a critical time for the important work of the collaborative, Lechowicz said. Turtles and tortoises were recently declared the most at-risk vertebrate group for extinction, surpassing primates. The designation is primarily from habitat loss, human consumption, traditional medicine use and an ever-increasing pet trade demand. A global demand for turtles has placed heavy strain on turtle populations in the United States, especially in the southeast, which is severely affecting Southwest Florida.

The illegal trafficking of turtles has become more common, and many law enforcement agencies are now spending more of their time and budgets investigating and thwarting the activities. Most “turtle-rich” states have been strengthening laws to align with neighboring states to close loopholes.

“Sea turtles and native tortoises, such as the gopher tortoise, are only slightly affected by this current problem,” Lechowicz said.

Primarily aquatic and semi-aquatic species such as box turtles, diamondback terrapins and mud turtles are kept as pets and as a good luck charm or symbol of a long-life or prosperity, mainly in southeast Asia. They are transported in harsh conditions and investors bid on the poached turtles to sell to turtle-breeding farms or resellers to supply the exploding pet market.

SCCF Box turtle

SCCF has increased its efforts to conserve and research non-marine turtles on Sanibel by taking on volunteers to assist with the Terrestrial and Freshwater Turtle Research efforts. The group surveys, measures and marks specific species on the island in order to document movement and longevity data. Volunteers have a badge verifying their identity as part of the SCCF TFTR group.

BY THE NUMBERS

There are 360 species of turtles and tortoises throughout the world; 59 species belonging to seven taxonomic families exist in the United States. Florida has a diversity of turtles with 27 species. Sixteen species — from all seven taxonomic families — either reside or nest on Sanibel, so the island hosts a strong diversity.

All turtles are protected on Sanibel as written in the Sanibel Code. Sanibel turtles cannot be taken, captured, kept as pets or killed for consumption. If you see someone catching turtles that is not clearly marked as one of SCCF’s volunteers, call the non-emergency phone number for the Sanibel Police Department at 239-472-3111. For questions concerning this issue, email clechowicz@sccf.org.