Burma?s Turtles Still Big Business Despite Protection Efforts

The Irrawaddy
July 5, 2007

By Shah Paung

While Burmese officials struggle to enforce protections o­n the country?s dwindling population of sea turtles, smuggling of freshwater turtles and tortoises remains widespread.

Turtles are sold in markets from Rangoon to Mandalay, but many are also exported to China, according to an animal trader who deals in black-market turtles in Monywa, Sagaing Division.
While the government has imposed a ban o­n all trade in sea turtles, fishermen can apply for permits to legally fish and sell freshwater turtles. However, many disregard the application process.

Sellers charge about 7,000 kyat (US $5) per viss (equal to 1.6 kg) for freshwater turtles, according to the Monywa trader.

Some varieties of Burmese turtles fetch much higher prices. The pan kyar leik, or Lucky, turtle sells for between 300,000 and 400,000 kyat ($240 to $320) per turtle. The fist-sized turtle is popular in China, the trader said.

Another species popular o­n the black market is the Star tortoise. o­ne former breeder in Rangoon said prices have steadily increased in recent years, from 20,000 kyat ($16) to as much as 500,000 kyat ($398) per tortoise.

The breeder added that Star tortoises are not commonly sold in Burma but exported to China, and that some 46 of the tortoises are currently being bred at Yadanabon Zoo in Mandalay.
Meanwhile, Burmese officials have recently stepped up efforts to protect the country?s endangered sea turtles.

Burma?s Department of Fisheries in April began tagging sea turtle shells with numbers and names, according to a report in the Burmese language journal Living Color in June.
The tags were designed to warn fishermen who caught them that they were protected and should not be kept, according to an official quoted in the report.

The program was introduced first o­n Tin Ban Island off the Arakan coast and about 18 miles from Sittwe.

Tagging programs are being carried out o­n all islands in Burmese waters where sea turtles are known to come ashore to lay their eggs, an official from the Department of Fisheries told The Irrawaddy.

The official added that the export of sea turtles was strictly forbidden because they were o­ne of Burma?s disappearing natural resources.

According to a 2003 fisheries department report, Burmese officials have identified three principal regions where sea turtles lay their eggs: the Arakan Coast, Irrawaddy Division and Tenasserim Division.

The department first initiated a program to protect and breed sea turtles in 1963 o­n Thameehla Island in Irrawaddy Division. In the 1980s, additional programs were created in other sea turtle habitats.

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