Partnering to Save Turtles From the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Each year, Center staff look forward to World Turtle Day – a day dedicated to the care and conservation of turtles – not only because turtles are one of our most commonly admitted patients but also because it happens to be the time when many of the overwintering turtles at the Center make their long-awaited return to the wild. Nearly two dozen turtles admitted last year after being hit by vehicles or caught by dogs are currently on their way back home in what staff have come to call “The Great Turtle Release."

But this year, the Center is also caring for another set of turtles – 21 in total – awaiting to go to an entirely new home, not in the wild, but in captivity. These turtles are the unfortunate victims of another, darker, human-related cause of admission: wildlife trafficking.

When the average person hears “wildlife trafficking,” it usually conjures up images of elephant tusks or rhino horns, but the truth is that this issue is much closer to home and threatens a particularly vulnerable group: turtles. Due to their slow maturation and the high demand for turtles in the pet trade, as well as for use as food or medicine, turtle trafficking has become an increasingly serious problem.

"We started a two-year investigation into the turtle trade in 2021, and during that time, we confiscated more than 600 turtles," shared a special agent with DWR's Special Operations Unit. "We didn't anticipate confiscating that many turtles, but it's not surprising. The illegal wildlife trade is a real problem."

A large number of turtles in tubs seized by DWR during an investigation.

To help combat this horrific practice, the Wildlife Center has partnered with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to provide a temporary home for turtles that are confiscated from the illegal trade here in Virginia. In just under a year, more than 30 turtles – including Woodland Box Turtles, Musk Turtles, Painted Turtles, and Yellow-bellied Sliders – were admitted from several confiscations. This number may not seem that high, but it represents only a fraction of the turtles that are being trafficked, and even the loss of just a few individuals can decimate local populations.

On admission, the vet team performed an in-depth exam on each turtle to assess their health, as many of the turtles come in with health problems related to poor husbandry and overcrowded conditions. With treatment and proper care, most of these turtles have been able to recover, but the Center and DWR staff are then faced with another challenge: what happens to the turtles?

Unlike most patients that arrive at the Center, these turtles are not able to be returned to the wild. Traffickers rarely share where the turtles were taken from, and since turtles live in small home ranges and don’t survive relocation, release is not an option. There’s also the chance that releasing the turtles to new areas could spread disease to otherwise healthy populations. Instead, the Center has devoted time to finding new homes for these turtles, not in the wild, but in captivity, where their stories can help teach the public about the crisis that wild turtles face.

"We started by reaching out to zoos, aquariums, and wildlife rehabilitation centers here in Virginia, but most organizations already had turtles and were not looking to expand their collection, so we've expanded our search nationwide," says Connor Gillespie, the Center's Outreach Supervisor.

After many months of care, the first of these confiscated turtles are now finding new homes. Four Painted Turtles were transferred to the Tennessee Aquarium in January of this year, and several of the Yellow-bellied Sliders are now education animals at the Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary. Still, many more turtles are waiting for placement, and with limited space and more turtles expected to come in this year, the Center and DWR staff face an uphill battle. 

LVT Jess Analyzing Turtle Blood Samples on the Center's microscopeThat’s why, while looking for new homes for these turtles, the Center has also partnered with the Turtle Survival Alliance and AZA SAFE – Saving Animals from Extinction – to perform genetic testing on the turtles. Not only will this help wildlife officials learn more about the health of these turtles, but it also presents the hope of learning where these turtles came from. If that can be identified, then at least some of these turtles may be able to make the journey back to the wild.

This is a  “tremendous opportunity for collaboration," says Dave Collins, the AZA Safe American Turtle Program Leader. With the many turtles that come through the Center’s doors, we may be able to overcome a "major hurdle of evaluating confiscated turtles for potential release.”

Recent legislation is also helping to combat the turtle trade in Virginia. In 2021, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation lowering the number of native reptiles a person can own from five to one, and prohibited the ownership of reptiles that are considered a Species of Greatest Conservation Need, including Woodland Box Turtles, Wood Turtles, Spotted Turtles, and more. This means that poachers are no longer able to avoid punishment by claiming that the turtles they possess are pets.

To help ensure the safety of turtles in Virginia, there are several steps that people can take. Most importantly, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources cautions against sharing the locations of turtle sightings on social media. Any suspicions of turtle trafficking, or related wildlife crimes, can be reported to the DWR Wildlife Crime Line (1-800-237-5712 or WildCrime@dwr.virginia.gov).

"We want to ensure a healthy future for turtles, and that means doing everything we can, not just on World Turtle Day, but every day," Connor Gillespie shared. "And we're getting there, one turtle at a time, thanks to the combined efforts of many."

For more information on the illegal turtle trade in Virginia, and what you can do to help, visit the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources website and read their article, Shell Game.