Asian appetites are rapidly driving the world's tortoises and freshwater turtles toward extinction, and some species might only be savable through costly and labor-intensive conservation efforts, according to both a new report and speakers at a workshop about conserving Asian turtles.

"It's going to take some intense management, both to protect wild populations and manage captive populations as a hedge against extinction," says Rick Hudson, president of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), who contributed to the report.

The report, "Turtles in Trouble," provides details on the 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles, 17 of which live in Asia, but almost all of which are threatened by demand from Asian markets. The report was released Tuesday by the Turtle Conservation Coalition, an informal alliance of several organizations that, along with the TSA, includes the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resource (IUCN) Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group; the Turtle Conservation Fund; the Turtle Conservancy / Behler Chelonian Center; the Chelonian Research Foundation; Conservation International; the Wildlife Conservation Society; and the San Diego Zoo Global Action Team.

The turtle crisis has become significantly worse in the past two decades, Hudson says. "It's amazing that in 15 to 20 years things have changed so much. People always used turtles, but in a sustainable way. But now everyone is harvesting turtles. It's a huge drain on wild populations." Wild turtles are harvested for their meat, traditional Asian medicine and the pet trade, and all three of those uses are on the rise due to China's growing economic prosperity. Turtle habitats are also at risk from human development and pollution.

Hudson was in Singapore this week for the Conservation of Asian Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles Workshop, where teams from 20 nations presented new research on the fate of the animals. "It's been a daunting and disheartening couple of days," he says. "I'm trying to be optimistic, but I'm not optimistic about our hope of saving wild populations, at least in Asia."

A portion of the workshop featured a session to consider how various turtle species should be listed on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species, the first such reassessment since 1999. Hudson says the group recommended that eight to 10 species be elevated from "endangered" to "critically endangered". The IUCN will now review the team's findings and make a determination on changing those listings later this year.

One species that typifies both the threats turtles face and how they can be saved is the Burmese roofed turtle (Batagur trivittata), ranked number five on the endangered list. Once thought to be extinct following decades of overhunting, the species was rediscovered in 2002. "Now we have built up a substantial breeding colony," says Hudson, who reports that protecting a single wild nesting population has led to more than 400 of the turtles living in captivity. "In fact," he says, "we just released seven males that were raised in captivity back into the wild population." The river where the males were set free has five wild females, two of which lay infertile eggs, "presumably because there aren't enough males," Hudson notes. "We're hoping they will find each other."

This could be the future of turtle conservation, Hudson says. "Species are going to be intensively managed, and it's going to require a lot of people and money." But meanwhile, human population growth and what Hudson calls "the insatiable demand for turtles" isn't expected to slow down. "People are picking up every turtle they can in the wild because they have economic value. I don't see that changing," he says. As a result, he expects that many species might soon disappear from the wild and exist only in captivity.

The TSA is "committed to zero turtle extinctions." Although things look dire for many turtles, "we haven't lost a species yet," Hudson says.

Photo: Critically endangered Burmese roofed turtle (Batagur trivittata). Photo by and courtesy of Rick Hudson