Turtles that could bring $10,000 apiece on the black market live behind a high razor-wire fence on a hidden nature preserve near Charleston.
Guard dogs patrol the grounds at night to warn away potential thieves, leaving little doubt the preserve would be a bad place to visit without permission.
Security is necessary for a simple reason: More than 700 of the world’s rarest turtles — many of them so endangered they have disappeared from the wild — are housed on this preserve in the backwoods of South Carolina.
The Turtle Survival Center began operating five years ago in an effort to save the world’s most threatened turtles from the nets of poachers and the bulldozers of developers. Today, the center houses and breeds these rare turtles, most of them from Asia, in an effort to keep the reptiles from going extinct.
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The illicit wildlife trade is a major threat to turtles as smugglers scoop them up and send them across the globe for use as pets or to be eaten. It's an issue in southern states like South Carolina, where native American turtles are being harvested and sent to Asia as replacements for turtles that have disappeared from the wild.
The hope is that one day, Asian turtles kept at the Turtle Survival Center will produce offspring that can be released back into the wild. Eventually, that could reduce illegal turtle smuggling from South Carolina and other southeastern states by curbing the Asian demand for American turtles.
The Carolinas, Georgia and other states in the region have some of the world’s most diverse turtle populations, but some species are suffering as a result of the international wildlife trade, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the Turtle Survival Center.
Turtles are important parts of the natural world, keeping ponds clean by scavenging for dead animals and creating burrows that provide shelter for other species.
Nathan Haislip, the center’s facilities manager, calls the facility “an ark for turtles’’ that is vital to the survival of many of the reptiles.
“We are a last-ditch effort,’’ Haislip said. “We’re working with zoos and aquariums in the U.S. to build up the populations to hopefully one day place turtles back into the wild.’’
The center exists “ultimately because of the rapid declines of turtles over the last 50 years’’ across the planet, center director Cris Hagen said. “The wildlife trade is a big part of it, yes, the legal and illegal trade in turtles.’’
On a sweltering June day, Haislip and refuge outreach coordinator Jordan Gray surveyed the turtle menagerie they have worked to develop and maintain during the past five years.
Some areas inside the preserve are surrounded by low masonry walls that keep larger turtles and tortoises. That includes the Burmese star tortoise, a big reptile with an intricate pattern on its shell that has been decimated in recent years by the world’s demand for exotic pets.
Other areas inside the preserve’s main fence are surrounded by more chain-link fences and locked when refuge managers aren’t around. The enclosures are filled with tropical plants and showered with artificial rainfall, mimicking the habitat of many turtles from southeast Asia.
“What’s in here are some of the rarest of the rare, species that we literally can’t replace,’’ Haislip said as he opened the gate to the preserve’s Asian box turtle area.
One of the reptiles housed there is the McCord’s box turtle, a species listed as the seventh most endangered turtle in the world by the Turtle Conservation Coalition’s 2018 report on the dwindling reptiles.
McCord’s box turtles, which are from China, began to decline rapidly in the 1980s when turtle collectors realized they could sell them worldwide as pets. Because the species was easy to catch, the population collapsed, the coalition report says. Worldwide, only 800 of the animals survive, all in captivity.
“The value on this animal is pretty high; roughly $8,000 to $10,000,’’ Haislip said, pointing out the small brown turtle nestled in an enclosure filled with brilliant green tropical plants. “Especially in Asia, that's where they are fetching those prices. It is a gorgeous turtle, it’s beautiful.’’
In other areas, the center houses reptiles such as the Asian big-headed turtle, an aggressive animal with a sharp beak and a painful bite; the Sulawesi forest turtle, a colorful animal known for aggressive mating habits; and the Zhou’s box turtle.
The latter animal is so rare — listed as the sixth most endangered turtle in the world — that refuge managers would not show it during a tour of the preserve for The State newspaper. Once found in China and Vietnam, Zhou’s box turtles have been eliminated from the wild. Today, only 140 of them exist in captivity, according to the 2018 Turtles in Trouble report.
Staff members at the Turtle Survival Center don’t advertise their location and ask that it not be disclosed, to make it hard for unscrupulous types who might want to steal a reptile. Reptile thefts have occurred in South Carolina before. About 15 years ago, four people were involved in the theft of $21,000 worth of reptiles from an exhibition in Ladson.
Gray said the trade in reptiles, particularly turtles, boils down to status for many people. Some like colorful, unusual turtles to show off to their friends, he said. But because so many Asian box turtles have been harvested to meet demand, their counterparts in South Carolina now are at risk, he said..
"Right now, Eastern box turtles are the flavor of the month for China,'' Gray said.
The Turtle Survival Center is part of the larger Turtle Survival Alliance, a nonprofit group founded in 2001 as the world’s turtle crisis worsened.
The alliance, which is headquartered in Charleston, operates on a $1.2 million budget, nearly half of which is spent on the survival center. The center was once owned by a veterinarian who offered it to the Turtle Survival Alliance, which upgraded and expanded the facility. The alliance liked the idea because the climate in South Carolina is similar to many areas of Southeast Asia, where the turtles are from.