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 Georgia Turtles‚ Future Slippery - Unprotected: Law Treats 13 Freshwater Species No Better Than Pests, And Experts Fear Some Are In Big Trouble.

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PostSubject: Georgia Turtles‚ Future Slippery - Unprotected: Law Treats 13 Freshwater Species No Better Than Pests, And Experts Fear Some Are In Big Trouble.   Sat 4 Oct - 23:15

By Mark Davis, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday, September 14, 2008

There may be harder ways to make $800 in a week, but Kirk DeKalb doesn‚t want to know about them. He‚s waded swamps, swatted mosquitoes and run the very real risk of nasty bites, just to pocket that amount.

And that‚s on a good week, DeKalb says.

A bad week? Well, at 75 cents to $2 a pound for a kicking, angry snapping turtle, he‚s not getting rich.

„If I work hard, I can make $800 to $1,000‰ trapping and selling different species of freshwater turtles, DeKalb said. „But who do you know who wants to work 75 hours in a week to make $800?"

It takes a lot of turtles to swing that sum, and that worries state biologists. They are hosting a meeting this week to discuss changing laws to help protect snappers, cooters, sliders and other unprotected hard-backed reptiles living in the wild. It is Department of Natural Resources‚ second „stakeholders meeting" of people who have an interest in the turtle trade.

This is no time to move slowly, state herpetologist John Jensen said. He does not know how many turtles live in Georgia‚s ponds, rivers or other waterways. Counting them „would be a very daunting task," he said.

But he is confident that the turtles need help. Nineteen species of freshwater turtles are native to Georgia; 13 of them aren‚t protected by state or federal law. If statutes aren‚t changed to protect them, he said, the fate of turtles here could match that of those in Southeast Asia. There, he said, „they have been eaten to the point of extinction."

In Georgia, freshwater turtles are part of the „unlucky 14," a term biologists use to describe nongame species whose hunting or capture isn‚t regulated. „Unlucky" animals include coyotes, armadillos, rats and other creatures with a public relations problem. DeKalb and anyone else can trap as many of these animals as they want without getting a permit or fearing they are breaking any regulation or statute.

Jensen and others want to remove freshwater turtles from that category. Under a proposal the DNR may forward to lawmakers next year, the Board of Natural Resources would govern the take, possession, transportation and sale of turtles.

A turtle can live for decades if it survives its earliest days. The mortality rate for eggs and hatchlings is high; a clutch of eggs may produce one hard-backed reptile that lives 15 years or longer to sexual maturity. „Once you remove the adults,‰ Jensen warned, „populations crash."

They are wild-caught and farm-raised, boxed and shipped live in the holds of airplanes that travel thousands of miles and cross numerous time zones. Some head for European markets, where red- or yellow-highlighted sliders are popular pets. Hundreds of thousands more are sent to Asia, feeding a voracious demand for turtles native to Georgia and other Southeastern states. Last year, federal figures show, national turtle exportation was a $10 million industry.

„It‚s not just about food over there. It‚s culture,‰ said David Hemm, owner of Sharp Turtle Farm, a three-hour drive south of Atlanta. „You take your mother-in-law out to eat and give her turtle, you are giving her longevity."

Hemm knows. For 11 years he‚s raised a variety of turtles, including the snapping Chelydra serpentina and the soft-shelled Apalone spinifera, shipping them to brokers on the West Coast who forward the creatures to the Far East.

Turtles, especially wily old creatures yanked from their habitat, symbolize wisdom and health, he said. And few are more desirable, Hemm said, than the snapping turtle. He calls them „my retirement turtle."

This year, he dispatched about 2,000 live hatchlings, each about the circumference of a quarter, to brokers selling to Asian markets. He packed them in plastic containers comparable to those that hold strawberries in the grocery store. Then he slid those into larger crates bound for the West Coast. From there, the turtles left their native land. Some will be eaten, others bred at Asian farms.

A former turtle trapper, Hemm, 56, began farming turtles after realizing he might put himself out of business if he kept removing the reptiles from the wild. Like DNR biologists, he believes Georgia‚s turtles cannot withstand unlimited harvesting. Hemm also suspects that turtle hunters from states with stricter statutes bring their traps to Georgia, where no one bothers to keep track of the hard-backed reptiles.

„I wish they would start issuing licenses" to take turtles, Hemm said. „Regulations would not bother me a bit."

Some regulations would help, said Tom McKenzie, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency posts law enforcement officers at airports and ports across the country, where they monitor the import and export of species. If a species isn‚t federally protected ˜- most freshwater turtles are not ˜- inspectors can only enforce applicable state laws.

In Georgia, that means fish and wildlife officials can do nothing to slow the export of native-born snappers and other turtles, Mc-Kenzie said.

„Unless you‚ve got a law, we can‚t help you," he said.

He also understands how some people may not embrace more regulations. „I guess that‚s the American way,‰ he said. „But it sure doesn‚t do much for the environment."

Not everyone is convinced the situation facing Georgia turtles is so dire. DeKalb, who visits ponds across South Georgia, wonders whether biologists are sounding a false alarm.

„Every year that I‚ve trapped," he said, „I‚ve never seen a diminishing amount of turtles."

Meantime, DeKalb said, he will continue trapping, even if it is a hard way to make a living.

TURTLES IN GEORGIA

19 species of freshwater turtles live in Georgia

Unprotected species:

Chicken turtle/Common musk turtle/Common snapping turtle/
Eastern mud turtle/Florida cooter/Florida red-bellied cooter
Florida softshell/Loggerhead musk turtle/Painted turtle/Pond slider
River cooter/Striped mud turtle/Spiny softshell/

Protected species:
Alabama map turtle/Alligator snapping turtle/Barbour‚s map turtle
Bog turtle/Common map turtle/Spotted turtle

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Attitude, rather than disposition is more definitive of serpent behavior. From the moment they emerge into this world until they complete their life cycle, their attitude is "Don't tread on me. I am well equipped to defend myself, but content to pass through life unnoticed. I mean no harm to anything or anyone that our creator has not provided as my bill of fare; I am self sustaining and I like it that way, please pass me by." - W.E. Haast
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