Asia's turtles and tortoises are in an extinction crisis. Few species embody that more than the critically endangered golden coin turtle (Cuora trifasciata), which is so valued in the illegal pet trade and for its use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that a single specimen can fetch $25,000 or more on the black market. The turtles are commonly ground into a medicinal jelly called gui-ling gao, which TCM practitioners say promotes general well-being or can even cure cancer—claims that, of course, have no scientific basis.

Golden coin turtles have been so overharvested from mainland China and Vietnam that, in all likelihood, they no longer exist in those locations. The only place they are known to still live in the wild is Hong Kong, where a few pocket populations remain in a handful of undeveloped areas and on offshore islands "in very, very small numbers," says Eric Goode, president of the Turtle Conservancy in New York City.

Luckily, a few institutions have managed to maintain tiny captive populations of these increasingly rare turtles. One of them is the conservancy, which operates a breeding center in California for several endangered turtle species. Over the past few years the organization has acquired several golden coin turtles from zoos around the world—plus a few animals confiscated from illegal traders—and has had some success breeding them.

Last month the conservancy flew five one-and-a-half-year-old captive-bred golden coin turtles from California to the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong. After an as-yet-to-be-determined quarantine period, they will join another small captive population to help increase its genetic pool. According to Goode, this marks the first time that a captive-bred turtle or tortoise species has been repatriated from the U.S. back to its home country. The transfer was a collaborative effort between the Turtle Conservancy, Kadoorie Farm and the Hong Kong regional government's Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.

The turtles at Kadoorie are kept "under unbelievable lock and key because the value of these things is so immense," Goode says. Speaking with China Daily last week, he said the facility was like a "small Guantanamo for turtles," with secure fences, motion detectors and ongoing camera surveillance.

Jim Juvik, the Conservancy's senior scientist and a professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, has been studying the golden coin turtle for decades. He says the Asian turtle crisis began following the brief Sino–Vietnam War in 1979, after which the unsettled and war-torn borderland between the two nations became an open door for the wildlife trade. "China just began importing all of Vietnam's wildlife," he says. "Most of the species that were once in South China were also in Vietnam. They were basically exterminated in China because they're in the Chinese pharmacopeia going back centuries as cures for all kinds of things."

When Juvik visited Vietnam in the early 1990s he found that people were already selling golden coin turtles for hundreds of dollars—and that was before the animals got to the retail level. Although the golden coin turtles were the most valuable species at the time, all other turtle and tortoise species were swept up in the selling frenzy. "Some might have only been worth a few dollars per kilogram, but the golden coin turtle was worth $500 or $1,000 even 20 years ago," he says. "This was an insane amount of money—more than the annual income in Vietnam in the nineties. It became a major crisis that has led to the commercial extinction if not the literal extinction of many turtle species across Southeast Asia." (Although the golden turtles in Vietnam look almost exactly the same as the Chinese turtles, genetics shows that they are their own species and they have recently been reclassified as Vietnamese three-striped box turtles, C. cyclornata.)

There's an odd twist to all of this: thousands of golden coin turtles are currently being raised on farms in China, but their existence does nothing to help wild populations. For one thing, most farm turtles are hybrids of golden coins and similar-looking species, making them useless for conservation. For another, TCM practitioners only value wild-caught turtles, not farm-raised ones. "The thinking is that turtles raised in captive turtle farms don't have the properties you need to get that good health," Goode says. "The turtle farms don't really solve that problem. People want to poach the ones from the wild." Finally, the farms—usually located in warm, lowland areas located far from the species's cooler mid-elevation habitats—are almost exclusively producing female turtles, because the hatchlings' sex is determined by the temperature at which their eggs gestate. Goode says this drives the price of wild-caught males up even higher. One male reportedly sold for an astonishing $50,000 in Europe a few years ago.

That gender disparity makes the turtles from California even more important, as three of the five are males. The team at the Conservancy's Behler Chelonian Center in Ojai, Calif., made sure to incubate turtle eggs at 26 degrees Celsius "in an attempt to favor the development of males," according to Paul Gibbons, the center's managing director. Hatchlings do not display any outward indications of gender, so they didn't know if they had successfully raised males until six months after they hatched, when scientists used a video endoscope to examine their internal sex organs. "We were pleased to find that we had three males and two females," Gibbons says. "It was these five turtles that we sent to Hong Kong, and the males will be particularly valuable in the reintroduction program."

The turtles were carefully packaged in a specially built crate and sent to Hong Kong in mid-February, where they may be joined later this year by another batch of hatchlings born a few months ago in Ojai. The team seems hopeful that this is a step in the right direction for this rare species. "It's amazing that we're sending these turtles back to China when the Chinese are trying to buy them from the U.S. for $50,000 apiece to put in their aquarium or grind them up for cancer cures or whatever," Juvik says. "It's just crazy. But we just try to do the best that we can."

Photos courtesy of the Turtle Conservancy

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