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2009 No Slow Year for Turtles

From new laws to increased enforcement, good things are happening for turtles

The Humane Society of the United States

In the past year, turtles benefited from strong new regulations, unprecedented enforcement efforts, and the work of dedicated activists. The Humane Society of the United States marks World Turtle Day, May 23, by celebrating some of these notable successes.

We also cheer Mutts cartoonist and HSUS Board Member Patrick McDonnell, who is celebrating turtles with affection and humor as only he can in his cartoon strip this week.

States take action to protect native turtles

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved a draft rule in April prohibiting the commercial take of freshwater turtles in the state. The HSUS was among the organizations and scientists who urged passage of the rule, which was championed by Governor Crist. Though a few loopholes remain, the rule goes a long way to protect Florida’s natural resources. It is expected to be finalized in June.

South Carolina lawmakers passed a new law protecting nine turtle species in April.

Now individuals will be limited to taking a maximum of 10 of these turtles at a time and 20 in a year.

These moves follow similar actions in Texas and Oklahoma last year.

Laws protecting turtles are enforced, big time

A man convicted of selling or offering to sell undersized turtles in Illinois was sentenced in November 2008 to a year in jail, possibly the first such sentence ever.

He was charged with a felony because more than 300 turtles were involved. Selling small turtles (with shells less than four inches long) has been illegal since 1975 to prevent the spread of Salmonella.

In July 2008, officials announced the unprecedented seizure of nearly 7,000 undersized turtles and tortoises from a Florida business. The company was fined $5,000 and placed on probation for two years. Federal prosecutors, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collaborated on the case.

An undercover investigation by New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation into the illegal sale of native turtles and other protected reptiles and amphibians led to charges against 18 people in March 2009. During "Operation Shellshock," for example, investigators discovered that thousands of New York snapping turtles were being shipped illegally to China for food.

Florida authorities have been working overtime to bring poachers of endangered and threatened turtles and tortoises to justice. A man suspected of poaching 119 sea turtle eggs was arrested in May. Another man was charged after being found with a live sea turtle in a cooler in April. A third man was arrested in April for killing a gopher tortoise.

Gopher tortoises are relocated instead of buried alive

With support from donors and a remarkable $150,000 in grants from The Folke H. Peterson Foundation, The HSUS prevented 428 threatened gopher tortoises from being buried alive on Florida construction sites in 2008 and plans to rescue at least 400 more this year.

Until 2007, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued permits allowing the “incidental take” of these rare creatures during construction. Thankfully it has stopped issuing these permits, but developers with existing permits are allowed to use them.

The lull in the housing market provides a temporary window of opportunity. The HSUS is reaching out to developers who have grandfathered permits and may be eligible for relocation grant funds.

Developers can contact The HSUS’s Florida office for more information at 850-386-3435. Donations to The HSUS’s Gopher Tortoise Rescue Relocation Fund support our efforts to relocate gopher tortoises from land slated for development to permanently protected wilderness.

Box turtles are saved from the path of Maryland highway

The HSUS is a partner in an innovative effort to save box turtles in the path of a controversial highway near Washington, D.C.

With the help of turtle-sniffing dogs, almost 400 Eastern box turtles were found before forest habitats were cleared for the first phase of construction of the Intercounty Connector. Since box turtles are notoriously difficult to relocate, the movements and survival of relocated turtles are being studied to help protect other turtle populations threatened by development.

More salmonella cases from pet turtles are reported

Health officials in Lewis and Clark County, Mont. announced in January that they had documented at least four cases of Salmonella infection in the county in the past year linked to pet turtles. The FDA published a brochure in October highlighting the risks: Pet Turtles: A Common Source of Salmonella. Copies are available free of charge.

Getting turtles as pets puts them at risk, too. Countless turtles in the pet trade die from poor shipping methods and inadequate care. If they survive they can live for decades. People may release them outdoors where they can harm native species.

Fishing is suspended in the Gulf of Mexico to protect sea turtles

The National Marine Fisheries Service suspended certain longline fishing in the Gulf of Mexico to protect threatened sea turtles after a study found that too many loggerhead sea turtles were being caught and killed. The temporary rule takes effect May 18 for 180 days and can be extended for another 186 days.

HSI works to deter the purchase of hawksbill turtle souvenirs in the Caribbean

The Dominican Republic’s population of hawksbill turtles has long been targeted by poachers for their beautiful and unique shells, which are used to manufacture countless souvenir items for tourists.

Humane Society International is working with Dominican organization Grupo Jaragua to alert tourists that it is illegal to purchase hawksbill turtle products and that these turtles are critically endangered. A public awareness campaign will reach international tourists upon their arrival at Santo Domingo and Punta Cana airports and also at the entry point for tourists disembarking from cruise ships.

World Turtle Day was initiated in 2000 by American Tortoise Rescue, an organization founded in 1990 in Malibu, Calif. to protect tortoises and turtles. The annual observance encourages people to celebrate these animals and help protect them and their disappearing habitats around the world.

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