Countries meet to save nature and wildlife. These 17 Southeastern … – Charleston Post Courier


Cloudy skies early, then partly cloudy after midnight. Low around 40F. Winds WNW at 5 to 10 mph..
Cloudy skies early, then partly cloudy after midnight. Low around 40F. Winds WNW at 5 to 10 mph.
Updated: December 17, 2022 @ 10:59 pm
A new agreement at a global U.N. event gave extra protections to 17 turtle species native to the Southeastern U.S., showing that progress is possible and can be felt at the local level. USFWS/Provided
WHY ARE FRESHWATER TURTLES SO VULNERABLE TO EXTINCTION? This graphic compares the reproductive potential (not including mortality) between white-tailed deer, black bears, and common snapping turtles. The turtle becomes reproductively mature at 17 years, by which time a black bear may have produced six and white-tailed deer 626 reproductively mature offspring. (SOURCE: IUCN TORTOISE AND FRESHWATER TURTLE SPECIALIST GROUP; UNITED NATIONS
A new agreement at a global U.N. event gave extra protections to 17 turtle species native to the Southeastern U.S., such as this alligator snapping turtle. The plan shows that progress is possible and can be felt at the local level. USFWS/Provided 
Pictured are two Asian longhorned ticks. The smaller tick is a nymph and the larger tick is an adult female. Males are rare. This tick can reproduce asexually. CDC/Provided
Mud turtle hatchling. USFWS/Provided

A new agreement at a global U.N. event gave extra protections to 17 turtle species native to the Southeastern U.S., showing that progress is possible and can be felt at the local level. USFWS/Provided
Scientists and conservationists traveled to a United Nations conference in Panama last month and called for tighter restrictions in the global trade of threatened species. This week, some of those same people are back together again. This time they’re in Canada, calling for a global plan that will “save nature” by 2030. 
The different U.N. events, with nearly overlapping dates, have similar goals of stopping wildlife decline through separate treaties. Both focus on biodiversity — a concept useful to scientists but quite vague to everyone else. Heads of state go to the big U.N. climate conferences, but these, they skip. 
But these may be the most important meetings you’ve never heard of. 
The countries of the world are concurrently working on multiple fronts of the biodiversity crisis, namely wildlife trafficking and habitat destruction. 
Some say the negotiations at these meetings are too ambitious or large-scale to actually slow extinctions. But a new agreement at last month’s conference gave extra protections to 17 turtle species native to the Southeastern U.S., showing that progress is possible and can be felt at the local level. 
WHY ARE FRESHWATER TURTLES SO VULNERABLE TO EXTINCTION? This graphic compares the reproductive potential (not including mortality) between white-tailed deer, black bears, and common snapping turtles. The turtle becomes reproductively mature at 17 years, by which time a black bear may have produced six and white-tailed deer 626 reproductively mature offspring. (SOURCE: IUCN TORTOISE AND FRESHWATER TURTLE SPECIALIST GROUP; UNITED NATIONS
“We’ve been following these conferences closely,” said Rick Hudson, president of the Turtle Survival Alliance, a nonprofit turtle advocacy group based in Charleston. “These extra protections for native (turtle) species are a step in the right direction.”
Advocacy groups nationwide applauded. “If turtles could celebrate, there’d be swamp parties all over the southeastern United States tonight,” wrote the Arizona-based group, Center for Biological Diversity. 
The meeting in Panama, also called the CITES meeting, concluded Nov. 25. It focused on restricting the trade of wildlife. It brought together 175 countries that have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora or Fauna.
This week’s meeting in Canada, also called the biodiversity meeting, has a much broader scope. 
What’s on the table is a holistic plan to save nature, or what the experts call the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. It’s being negotiated by countries that have signed another treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity. (The U.S. signed the treaty, but Congress never ratified it.) Protecting 30 percent of the world’s land and sea by 2030 is the most critical part of the new plan intended to slow species’ extinctions worldwide and support communities who depend on them.
The turtles native to the Southeast gaining new regulatory protections after the CITES meeting are alligator snapping turtles, common snapping turtles, five species of broad-headed map turtles, three species of soft- shelled turtles, and three species of mud turtles. An additional four turtles native to other parts of the U.S. were also protected. 
Mud turtles and snapping turtles were once common throughout South Carolina. 
“Ya know what else was common? The passenger pigeon, the ivory-billed woodpecker, and the Carolina parakeet,” said Callie Broaddus, a conservationist and founder of a nonprofit organization, Reserva: The Youth Land Trust. Broaddus is currently attending the biodiversity meeting in Canada as a registered nonprofit observer. 
A new agreement at a global U.N. event gave extra protections to 17 turtle species native to the Southeastern U.S., such as this alligator snapping turtle. The plan shows that progress is possible and can be felt at the local level. USFWS/Provided 
All three birds were native to the parts of rural Virginia where Broaddus grew up. All were driven to extinction by humans.
Many people believe the last remaining flock of Carolina parakeets was spotted in a South Carolina swamp in 1938. Soon after, loggers chopped down large swaths of trees there to make room for power lines. The emerald-colored birds were never seen again. 
Both deforestation and the pet trade drove the demise of the once ubiquitous Carolina parakeet. Today, these two threats continue to work hand in hand, pushing backyard species to the brink. 
“These animals are all ‘common’ … until they’re not,” Broaddus said. 
The biodiversity of South Carolina declined just a bit when the parakeet went extinct. The most common way to measure biodiversity is to count the number of animal species in a certain place. Scientists also call that “species richness.” 
Biodiversity can also refer to other forms of diversity, like having a diverse and healthy gene pool. However, having high biodiversity is not always a “good” thing. Consider a park that is being inundated with more and more invasive species. The biodiversity of the park is increasing, but few scientists or conservationists would find that desirable. For this reason, the concept of biodiversity is fuzzy for many people and, among scientists, the long-term value of the word is hotly debated
However, the crisis of wildlife decline is not under debate. The evidence is clear and it’s in our backyards. 
South Carolina used to be a safe haven for the turtle trade. Due to relaxed laws and loopholes, that state allowed for the collection, possession and commercial sale of its native freshwater turtles until fairly recently. Gov. Henry McMaster signed a bill in 2020 making the commercial trade of native turtles illegal. 
The new CITES agreements for turtles will, according the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “complement” state-level management efforts. Five South Carolina turtle species that gained protection under the state’s 2020 bill also received additional protection at the U.N. meeting. They include the spiny softshell turtle, Florida softshell turtle, eastern mud turtle, striped mud turtle, common musk turtle and common snapping turtle.
The heftier protections for Southeastern turtles will make the trade more traceable and sustainable.
Any individual or organization wanting to send native turtles outside of the U.S. must now apply for a permit under the treaty’s Appendix II rules. This ensures that the number of turtles taken out of the country each year are counted and, more importantly, actively compared with the wild populations to avoid exploitation. In theory, the number of exported turtles that the government signs off on every year is biologically sustainable. 
“Mud turtles and musk turtles were moving in the thousands to China for the pet turtle market,” Hudson said  of South Carolina’s turtles. “We had no idea what was going out.” While applauding the move, Hudson also stressed that CITES protections are “no panacea” to fixing the problem of wildlife trafficking.
Six turtles that call South Carolina home received increased protections from global trade at the CITES meeting in November. 
Common snapping turtles are traded in large quantities for meat. The rest enter the pet trade. 
Source: Center for Biological Diversity
One visit to his organization’s turtle sanctuary makes that clear. The Turtle Survival Alliance’s sanctuary in Berkeley County permanently cares for some of the world’s most endangered turtles, like the Asian mountain tortoise. Most turtles end up at the sanctuary after being intercepted in the exotic pet trade. But the facility also serves as a temporary home for many native turtles intercepted at U.S. ports and airports. They’re often packed inhumanely, sedated and bound with duct tape. Some are stuffed in tube socks or candy wrappers. Most illegal packages are destined for Asia.  
In 2018, three South Carolina residents pleaded guilty to operating an expansive international turtle smuggling operation that brought in over $400,000.
Steven Verren Baker of Holly Hill led the scheme. He told undercover federal agents at one point, “I got guys in the woods right now,” referring to people he paid to collect wild turtles in South Carolina. Baker’s global smuggling scheme included the flattened musk turtles, one of the species that gained increased protection at November’s CITES meeting. Flattened musk turtles are so rare that they can only be found in a single river system in central Alabama.  
“I think all the turtle proposals were passed unopposed. … I was quite shocked by that,” Hudson said about the CITES meeting. He thinks it’s part of a sea change in the general awareness that small animals in the U.S. are just as threatened are large animals from Africa.  
In addition to this win for American turtles, 32 non-U.S. turtle species received additional protections. The willingness to expand CITES protections is directly linked to growing concerns over an out-of-control black market for pet turtles in Asia. An individual turtle can fetch over $20,000.
Regulating wildlife trade isn’t just good for reptiles. It’s good for human health.
Pathogens that animals carry can make humans sick. The first U.S. outbreak of monkeypox in 2003 started in Texas, after a shipment of small rodents from Ghana infected prairie dogs that were later sold as pets. In South Carolina, health officials have been on high alert since Asian longhorned ticks infested a York County farm. Scientists believe the ticks have repeatedly entered the U.S. from the global livestock and pet trade; they can carry over 30 harmful pathogens. 
Pictured are two Asian longhorned ticks. The smaller tick is a nymph and the larger tick is an adult female. Males are rare. This tick can reproduce asexually. CDC/Provided
Experts say that the two wildlife treaties at the center of the November and December meetings are letting human health fall through the cracks. 
“People need to understand that most of the wildlife that are imported to the United States are not tested or screened or monitored for pathogens,” said Jonathan Kolby, a former USFWS inspector and CITES policy specialist. “There are pathogens we know about and those we don’t … like COVID-19.”
Live monkeys imported to the U.S. are tested and quarantined for pathogens. Most dead bats being imported, however, are not. 
Evidence points to a live animal market in Wuhan, China, as the human-to-animal spillover point that led to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Three separate scientific studies have verified this. A new study, shared at the seventh World One Health Congress on Nov. 8, found that the pandemic-causing SARS-CoV-2 virus shares a common ancestor with coronaviruses found in bats
Wildlife trade is part of everyday life, from kangaroo leather used in sneakers, to primates used for testing pharmaceuticals, to taxidermy bats sold on Etsy as Halloween decor. Few experts envision a future without wildlife trade. 
“I think there’s a misconception that a lot of these issues all lean toward trade bans, and that can really upset some people,” Kolby said. “But the more carefully we can trade wildlife, the more carefully we can minimize the risk to public health.”
CITES was never intended to be a treaty that regulated the flow of pathogens across the globe. But given the COVID-19 pandemic, many now think it should. Bruce Weissgold is one of them. As a longtime veteran of the USFWS who worked in the agency’s CITES office, Weissgold views the 50-year old treaty as ripe for adapting in order to prevent the next pandemic. He published his views in Scientific American in 2020.
“Sadly, this is just not the meeting where anything substantive will happen with human health,” said Weissgold. Now retired, he spoke while attending the CITES meeting in Panama, serving as a representative of the International Iguana Foundation. “There is wide agreement right now that preventing pandemics through controlling trade is not something CITES is good at.”
A proposal to do just that, put forth by a group of African countries at the November meeting, was not approved. 
There is mounting evidence that stopping deforestation may actually slow the rate of pathogen spillover between animals and humans. And stopping deforestation by protecting 30 percent of the earth’s land from exploitative use is on the table at the current U.N. meeting being held in Canada. 
More than half the world’s turtles are currently threatened with extinction.
In November, 184 nations of the world approved proposals to increase protections for 53 turtle species under the U.N. treaty that regulates wildlife trade. This marks a clear acknowledgement that global trade poses a major threat to freshwater turtles.
The treaty is called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora. It is designed to ensure that trade does not threaten the survival of plants and animals in the wild. The current agreement protects over 30,000 species of plants and animals worldwide. 
Source: Center for Biological Diversity
Broaddus, the Virginia-born conservationist, said she is “cautiously optimistic” that, by the meeting’s end, all countries will have agreed to a “30X30” plan to protect 30 percent of planet by 2030. However, many scientific reports suggest even that even 30 percent is not enough to avoid apocalyptic levels of biodiversity loss. Some advocate for protecting 50 percent of the planet, a controversial goal that is unlikely to find wide agreement among all countries. Indigenous groups, who have cared for land sustainably for millennia, want to make sure their land rights and caretaking knowledge aren’t sidelined by creating these fortress-like areas of conservation. 
Land conservation matters for turtles. The bog turtle hasn’t been seen in South Carolina in 20 years and habitat destruction is largely to blame.
The species was one of the first turtles to get Appendix II protection under the CITES treaty in 1975. It was transferred to Appendix I, which bans all commercial trade, in the early 1990s. Bog turtles are popular in the pet trade, but recovery of the species will only be possible through the restoration of southern Appalachian bogs, a rare type of wetland found north of Greenville. 
As the notion for a “30X30” nature-saving plan gained popularity on a global scale, some have tried to implement it at the state level. South Carolina was the first state to have a 30X30 bill introduced in its legislature. The protection of land and sea for wildlife continues to be an issue where state legislators find some common ground, especially as the state tries to stem a declining wildlife trend of its own making. 
According to a report published in October by the World Wildlife Fund, populations of most major animal groups worldwide have declined by an average of 69 percent in the past half-century. This includes mammals, birds and fish. No one biodiversity metric says it all. This one calculated by WWF, the world’s largest conservation organization, simplifies the complexity of the data, including evidence that not all animals are in decline.
Still, it’s a decent indicator of things getting worse. 
For the wildlife trade, many assume the stakes are even higher than reports suggest. It’s been hard for university scientists and other experts to calculate the true extent of wildlife entering the U.S., both legally and illegally. Since 2015, the federal government has withheld that information from the public eye. Multiple groups have sued the government to get access to those records, which are known as the Law Enforcement Management Information System wildlife trade data, or LEMIS. 
Ben Rankin is a student attorney with Harvard Animal Law and Policy Clinic. He helps file complaints against the USFWS after the agency failed to respond to a public records request for the LEMIS data.
When the USFWS finally sent Rankin and fellow Harvard attorneys five years’ worth of previously undisclosed data in March, Rankin remembers trying to open the files on his laptop. “It almost crashed my computer,” Rankin said. “And every time I’m looking at all of this data, every time I try to analyze it, it’s so shocking, the sheer volume of wildlife that is being transported.”
Mud turtle hatchling. USFWS/Provided
When it comes to turtles, experts are fairly certain that the U.S. is the largest exporter of freshwater turtles in the world. Documents filed by the Department of Justice when prosecuting turtle smugglers in court corroborate this. 
The stakes have never been higher for turtles and other animal groups in decline.  
“Even though they seem quite far away from our daily lives, it’s important to be aware of these U.N. meeting and negotiations, because they are negotiating our future,” said Broaddus. 
In Canada, countries have until Dec. 19 to reach an agreement. Things remain uncertain. In the South, there is at least some certainty. Native turtles won’t slip away silently, like the Carolina parakeet. They’re now being watched — closely.
Follow Clare Fieseler on Twitter @clarefieseler.
Clare Fieseler, PhD is the climate and environment reporter at The Post and Courier. Fieseler previously served as a reporting fellow at The Washington Post. She earned a PhD in ecology from UNC Chapel Hill and holds a research appointment at the Smithsonian Institution. 
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