Releasing turtles: a risky business

Every year during the Qingming festival, the religious practice of releasing animals produces a boom in the demand for Brazilian turtles in China. However, many people do not know that this act of compassion actually has threatening consequences for Chinese ecology.

According to a report released in late March by Shanghai Morning Post, Brazilian turtles, native to the south-central United States, are Chinese citizens favorite choice for this religious practice: often several dozen will be bought at a time.

One of the most important festivals in China, Qingming festival is a religious recurrence during which people release animals in order to commemorate the souls of the dead and pray for the happiness of the living. Compared to other religious practices, such as burning ceremonial paper money, the release of animals, which symbolises a new lease of life, is a more eco-friendly custom and has already become the main tradition of the Qingming Festival. However, only few people are aware of the ecological consequences of this activity.

Brazilian turtles were introduced into China in 1980 and quickly became the cheapest and most conspicuous species of turtle available on the market. In fact, many people buy and bring them home where they are raised as pets. Recently, due to the traditional custom of releasing animals during the Qingming festival, some places have been literally inundated by Brazilian turtles.

Many experts and organisations are deeply worried about the release of Brazilian turtles. As pointed out by Shanghai Morning Post, on May 14, 2009, WWF, the Committee for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles at China Zoological Society and China National Geographic published a joint appeal, in which they asked the government to enforce the import regulations for Brazilian turtles and other introduced species, and to improve legislation relating to the release of animals. They further encouraged the public not to purchase Brazilian turtles and other foreign invasive species as pets and, most importantly, not to release them.  

The Brazilian turtle, also known as the “ecological killer”, has been classified among the world’s 100 deadliest invasive species by environmental organisations. It has a strong reproduction capacity and a relatively high survival rate. President of the Committee for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles Shi Haitao pointed out: Brazilian turtles can eat vegetation, small fish and shrimps, tadpoles and even frogs, consequently cutting off the food supply of native turtles.” 

Once released, Brazilian turtles reproduce with native freshwater turtles, giving birth to a hybrid species which is causing the decline of native turtles gene. Over the long run, this could lead to the simplification of native turtles species. Moreover, Brazilian turtle can carry typhoid, which can be contagious for human beings.