Illegally Trafficked Box Turtles Need Homes

Illegally Trafficked Box Turtles Need Homes

Returning seized animals to the wild is seldom an option due to uncertainties about their origins and potential disease risks. Tamesha Woulard, a 36-year veteran of the FWS, highlighted the perennial challenge of handling confiscated live animals.

“What happens after they’re here?” she asked, revealing a critical gap in wildlife management in response to the discovery of about 40 box turtles a week ago at an international mail facility in Los Angeles, en route to Asia.

In response to this dilemma, the FWS and the Association for Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) launched a pilot project in Southern California last year, aiming to address the care and placement of confiscated wildlife.

With global wildlife trafficking on the rise, the initiative is set to expand nationwide. “We’re reacting to a crisis,” noted Sara Walker, AZA’s senior advisor on wildlife trafficking. However, she stressed that while the program helps manage the aftermath of seizures, it doesn’t tackle the root cause—demand.

Wildlife trafficking is a lucrative and widespread criminal activity, valued between $7 billion to $23 billion annually. A UN report revealed that over 4,000 species are trafficked globally, causing severe environmental and societal impacts. Moody’s Analytics found a 150% surge in wildlife trafficking from 2018 to 2021.

In the U.S., nearly 50,000 live plants and animals were seized or abandoned from 2015 to 2019, a figure that has likely risen since. “E-commerce has exploded, and there are people making pets out of animals that were never pets before,” Woulard said, noting the increasing variety of trafficked species, from skunks to ants.

While some illegal trade results from ignorance, with pet enthusiasts unknowingly purchasing illegal specimens, the FWS aims to intercept and manage these activities. At their Torrance office, facilities include tanks for seized marine life and rooms for other wildlife, like box turtles.

Since the Wildlife Confiscations Network’s inception, it has facilitated the placement of over 1,300 animals in Southern California’s zoos, aquariums, and conservancies. Despite this success, the need for space remains urgent. “We’re running out of space,” Walker admitted, predicting that euthanasia might become a last resort.

Plans to expand the network aim to create a national framework, though the initiative remains reactive. For the box turtles in Los Angeles, their future home might be the Turtle Conservancy in Ojai, California, which has taken in about 500 confiscated turtles since 2017.

James Liu, the conservancy’s director, highlighted the surge in American turtles being trafficked as part of a broader trend driven by rising wealth in Asia and economic challenges in the U.S. post-COVID-19.

This perfect storm has turned American turtles into high-value targets for poaching. In the conservancy’s quarantine room, new arrivals, like the recently seized box turtles, undergo health screenings and recovery. “It’s a quarantine, but really it’s an evidence locker,” Liu remarked, pointing to the living evidence of the ongoing trafficking crisis.

This article by Trinity Sparke was first published by One Green Planet on 11 June 2024. Image Credit :Bob Garvine/Shutterstock.

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