Chinese ecosystems face a new threat: vicious snapping turtles

A large, voracious predator has quietly invaded China’s lakes and rivers and is now threatening native species across the country: the snapping turtle.

Native to North America, the animals – which belong to two species, the alligator snapping turtle and the smaller common snapping turtle – have been imported in large numbers to China for years, where they are raised for their meat and sold as pets. exotic pets.

On Chinese e-commerce platforms, snapping turtle hatchlings can be purchased for as little as 20 yuan ($3) each. Buyers, however, are often unaware that their new pet will eventually turn into a monster.

Large adult snapping turtles are hulking 80-kilogram brutes, with long claws, beaked snouts, and carapaces bristling with sharp ridges. If threatened, they go on the offensive, hissing and snapping at everything they see. Their bite can easily take off a finger.

Now the turtles appear to be ending up in the wild, alarming Chinese authorities and biologists.

These invaders are natural predators… Virtually anything that can fit in their jaws would be in danger.

Chinese media has reported dozens of cases of wild snapping turtles being found in local waterways over the past decade. The middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River are particular hotspots for snapping turtle sightings, according to a study published in 2020.

If snapping turtles become established and start breeding outside of captivity, they risk wreaking havoc on local ecosystems, scientists warn. They are known to devour everything from fish, frogs and small turtles to any mammals found in the water. A range of native Chinese species could be threatened.

“These invaders are natural predators. As soon as they hatch, they feed on invertebrates, fish, tadpoles, frogs, taking bigger and bigger prey as they grow… Virtually anything that can fit in their jaws would be in danger,” said David Dudgeon, professor of freshwater biology at the University of Hong Kong, tells Sixth Tone. juveniles or even well-developed individuals.”

Snapping turtles appear to enter ecosystems through several pathways. In some cases, livestock farms have been affected by flooding, which may have resulted in the escape of animals. Tens of millions of turtles are bred in China each year for use as food, pets and traditional medicine, with snapping turtles being a popular choice due to their large size.

There have also been several instances of people deliberately releasing snapping turtles. Chinese Buddhists often release fish, turtles and other animals into the wild as a sign of mercy – a practice known as fangsheng. It’s also possible that pet owners release snappers after realizing the creatures are no ordinary turtles.

Last year, a Chinese fisherman allegedly caught a snapping turtle in a river, whose shell was covered with Buddhist symbols and mantras. In another incident, local residents called police after spotting a man releasing two snapping turtles into the Jialing River, a tributary of the Yangtze, in the southwest city of Chongqing.

Chinese authorities are trying to crack down fangsheng, which has led to the release of a large number of non-native species into the waterways, upsetting the balance of local ecosystems. Invasive species are considered a major threat to the country’s biodiversity.

In 2020, government experts included snapping turtles in a list of 17 non-native species that are dangerous to release into Chinese freshwater ecosystems. The reasons given were that the snappers ate large amounts of native fish, amphibians, turtles and birds, and also bit people.

In March 2021, China made the release of invasive species a criminal offence. Many lakes and rivers, especially those near temples, now have signs warning the public that fangsheng forbidden.

Chinese media has also published numerous stories in recent years referring to snapping turtles as “ecological killers” and reminding people not to keep them as pets or release them into the wild. Those who catch a Snapping Turtle in the wild are advised to kill and eat it rather than release it back into the water.

Dudgeon agrees that cracking down on the release of snapping turtles should be a priority for Chinese law enforcement. “Preventing releases is much easier and more practical than removing animals that have established themselves,” he says.

Listings of common snapping turtles for sale on the Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao. Text in the photos reads: ‘Sold wholesale by breeders, price includes postal delivery’ (left) and ‘Intimidating to breed, delicious to eat’. From Taobao seller @志龙水产养殖基地 and @春之初会

But stopping the releases can be an uphill battle due to the scale of the snapping turtle trade. More than 400,000 snappers are sold as pets every year on the Taobao e-commerce platform alone. The animals are also for sale on other Chinese platforms including Plastic crates teeming with baby snapping turtles are also commonplace in pet markets across China.

China isn’t the only country where snapping turtles are a problem. Thousands have been taken from the wild in Japan, and alligators and common snapping turtles are now on the country’s invasive species list. Snappers may also colonize Europe: wild turtles have caused panic among swimmers in France, Germany and Italy in recent years.

Publisher: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: A man holds an alligator snapping turtle he found in Anyang, Henan province, April 3, 2013. IC)