#1 | These Trinkets Are Alive

The sale of baby turtles to little girls and tourists in China is driving endangered species to extinction

The sale of baby turtles to little girls and tourists in China is driving endangered species to extinction.

Painted baby turtles in a basket at the market, Yangshuo, China

Life is short. You were born recently and yet, you are already aware of the inescapable truth: Sooner rather than later, it will end. Still, you are filled with the hope that this day will never come, and now it is time for you to make your tiny mark on the world.

You have just left your egg where it was pitch black, moist and comfy. It was just too small for you and you longed for the real world, the endless ocean of opportunity. As your many brothers and sisters, you know you will have to be in “survival mode” straight away, starting with the race to the water only a few feet away from your nest. Before rush hour, you look left, then right… There is no one around, so you start running. 

You are ready for it, it’s in your genes: The birds can’t catch you, you are sure of it. Filled with confidence and hope, you run under the scorching sun, often glancing here and there for a sighting of your siblings, hoping that they are not all gone, that there is still hope for your dwindling species… in vain. No one is here; maybe they all got caught by flying creatures with feathers. You are all alone on the flat sand. 

Suddenly, you don’t feel the sun anymore. You feel cold. Like a tree falling behind you, a shadow engulfs you in darkness and you are picked up from the ground. The grains of sand fall from your limbs one by one as your fear level pikes up. The birds couldn’t catch you – but humans certainly did. You are bounced around until you join your new living quarters, much smaller than expected: A plastic basket filled with other turtles, most of which, coming from industrial farms, have only known this desolate place. With little water or food, a few days pass by before you are again picked up by a human hand. 

You feel a repeated scratch against your back. It goes over, and over, and over; it feels like being flayed on a pirate ship. The strong smell of alcohol penetrates your nostrils, then your lungs. The chemicals in the air make you weak. One additional scratch on the top of your head and you are dropped back in the bucket; one of your legs breaks on impact, and you wish you had been snatched by a bird instead. You finally understand where all of your turtle cousins got the bright colours on their shells. 

After a few more days in complete darkness, the bucket suddenly opens and the bright lights blind you. Hours come and go in the bustling street, and while you are climbing on other turtles to try to escape the opaque basket, you feel the hand of the little girl who has chosen you to be her new prized toy. She picks you up and you are off to a new, unknown place.

I record the scene at night, taking photos as quickly as possible, without the opportunity to aim for quality shots as the Chinese street vendors react very quickly… and aggressively: The police is never far away. Getting from Hong Kong to Yangshuo was no small feat, even with the incredibly fast and clean Chinese bullet train which makes the pleasures of tourism more accessible than ever before. Here, the scenery is similar to northern Vietnam: Steep and narrow mountains dropping straight down into flat valleys filled with rice fields and rivers, lush green all year-round. 

These are common sights in the region, so Asian tourists usually flock to the main market street where everything can be bought, including baby turtles with their shells painted with widely varying patterns and colours, from Hello Kitty to Avengers. There may be up to one hundred such trinkets in one plastic basket, being carefully selected by little girls with bright smiles and cute dresses, crouching down on their knees to have a better look. A few hundred meters down the busy street, similarly painted turtles are sold in a supermarket; the little girl here doesn’t even care about the tiny and cute live animals, preferring the latest cheap gadget.

In between scenic mountains, a shopping street
Busy Yangshuo
Lookie here, pretty things
Colourful and eye catching, Yangshuo, China
Just another toy
Give me love, or I’ll take it

Yet, only a few years ago, the practice of “turtle trinkets” (where live turtles and salamanders were sold in plastic pockets which you could hang to a keychain) was banned in China after the practice had been made public on social media. They were sold to tourists at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and some of them decided to voice their disgust. Sure, it was officially banned, but that did not prevent it from continuing to exist today, although less reported upon. Only a few lines here and there, on the last page of a newspaper: In 2011, a CNN article revealed that the practice is still widely spread in Beijing, where the trinkets are sold for 1.50 USD each; other stories were published in 2018 and 2019 on shared.com and ReptilesMagazine.com. With the People’s Republic of China being typically very touchy about its public image and reputation, how come nothing has changed in over ten years?

Turtles in China have traditionally been used for food and medicine, and they play a key role in Chinese mythology, so it is difficult to go against any such behaviour – and even more so to try to ban it in such a large country. In most of China, from the city centers to the countryside, one can spot turtles of all species, ages and sizes kept in buckets… even at temples. Turtles are so important that the production of farm-bred turtles has become a massive industry in the last 20 years, ranging between 200 million USD and 750 million USD in revenue in 2008, which represents 120 to 300 million turtles sold; but many farms operate without proper license, so these are but estimates. 

There are about 22 softshell and hardshell turtle species being bred industrially. “Although the bulk of these figures comprise the common Chinese softshell turtle Pelodiscus sinensis many other species are also farmed, including Critically Endangered species and even species native to North America” (Oryx, 2008).Already in 2009, ten years ago, the “pet trade” in turtle species was considered worrisome as males, which are needed for breeding, were already being stolen from the wild to satisfy the Chinese industrial farms demand. 

So “turtle trinkets”, turtle pets and industrial farming for food and medicine are closely intertwined and tightly weaved into the fabric of Chinese culture and, therefore, near impossible to control. The pet trade is the most difficult to regulate, with countless unlicensed farms in the countryside, and little girls will keep choosing the one turtle that will look most beautiful in an empty glass for a few months, until it either gets too big to be kept (and what happens then, no one knows) or too weak to survive in inappropriate conditions. But at least, for a little while, one human got some pleasure out of it.

We own the place, Chinese Police destroy street stalls in Yangshuo, China

What are local authorities doing? Not much, especially so in China: The socialist country, which is prompt to waving the red flag of “cultural prejudice”, does not have any animal welfare laws nor any regulations against animal cruelty, its only laws directed exclusively at “wild animals” – mainly, the giant panda. Two attempts to legislate have been made in the past: Zhou Ping submitted a “nationwide animal protection law” at the National People’s Congress in 2006 which was rejected, and the first comprehensive animal protection law in the country was drafted in 2009 but remains at a standstill since 2013. 

While some reports still come up here and there and animal activists remain vocal about Chinese practices, and even with recurring petitions demanding the protection of a wide variety of animals, it is an uphill battle and, so far, traction among the country’s institutions has been impossible to gather. 

It seems that only individual behaviour may generate some change over time and, as reported in Alternatives to laboratory animals back in 2013, there might be hope that public opinion is influencing the Chinese debate on such topics – animal welfare being a “new” concept in the country’s debate. However, judging from my reality check in June of this year, the road will be long before animals even begin to be considered as sentient beings in China.

So what can we do? When drawing conclusions from this experience and taking them back home, let us not forget that change at the individual level, when compounded to a nation’s size, can transform the world. There are three concrete steps that you can take immediately, in your personal, everyday life:

  1. Petition here and here for the turtles and other small animal trinkets to be banned in China and throughout the world, and share this story to your network. You can also contact the China Wildlife Conservation Association, the Wildlife Conservation Society of China and the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation of Hong Kong to express your concerns or support
  2. On your next trip, do not buy any trinket made from animal parts (not to mention live animals – that should be a given -) and report the trades that sell them to local authorities, animal welfare groups, tourism publications and online guides (Michelin, TripAdvisor, LonelyPlanet, Google Reviews)
  3. Back at home, if you consider getting a pet, ponder carefully your decision: Will this make that animal’s life better? Is the animal meant to be a pet or to live in the wild? Do you have sufficient resources to maintain it, enough space to give it a decent life? Enough time to care for it? And above all, do you have enough love to give to it?