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Turning turtle

A global fondness for turtle meat has turned a once common sea creature into a conservation icon, writes Ashley Coates

Green is good: a green turtle swims through the pristine waters of the Great Barrier Reef
Green is good: a green turtle swims through the pristine waters of the Great Barrier Reef

Interfering with turtles today can land you in a lot of trouble. The urge to play with them is too much for some tourists but can carry a hefty fine, as two US citizens found out in 2017.

After posting an image with a turtle captioned: "Missing the time we risked a $20,000 (£15,700) fine to catch a sea turtle with our bare hands", they were roundly criticised on social media and fined within the actual limits of the US Endangered Species Act - $750 for picking up a Hawaiian green turtle.

It is a remarkable change in attitude considering it wasn't long ago turtles were a central ingredient in a tomato-based soup that was hugely popular in many parts of the world, particularly the US, UK, the Caribbean and China.

Turtle soup was a favourite of royalty and presidents. George Washington and John Adams both served turtle at the White House, while Abraham Lincoln is known to have offered up terrapin hors d'oeuvres at a dinner following his second inauguration.

"It was really an aspirational dish," Dr Ruth Thurstan, lecturer in biosciences at the University of Exeter, tells me. "It was considered an exotic, high-class dish, associated with the upper classes. It just so happened that it tasted good as well, it was highly nutritious and not too far off our own palette at that time."

For much of the 1700s and 1800s, turtle was a delicacy for the middle and upper-middle classes in England. Writing in her early journals, Queen Victoria said turtle soup was in the same category as "insects and Tories" when it came to things she didn't like, but later in life she warmed to the dish to the point where Hatfield House would lay on £800 worth of turtle during a three-day visit by the Queen.

Victoria was supplied by a man colloquially known as the Turtle King, a Liverpudlian who carved out a niche for himself as an importer of live and processed turtles, which was mostly a species called the green turtle. According to an 1898 edition of The Sketch, Thomas Kerrison Bellis's firm was importing as many as 100 turtles per week in the late 1800s, all on steamboats equipped with salt water hoses to help keep them alive during the voyage. Those turtles that did survive the journey were quickly processed or sent on to their high-end banqueters alive.

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Their survivability on long voyages is one of the reasons why turtles became such a popular food. As early as the 1500s, turtles were prized by sailors as easy sources of protein as they could survive journeys on European vessels returning from the Caribbean.

They weren't just useful for their meat - turtles were also used to make leather products such as purses and shoes, their shells have gone into jewellery, hair clips and buttons, while turtle fat was used in soaps and make-up products. Sadly, some of this trade continues to this day, illegally.

"They have always been important for food, but hold a cultural and spiritual significance for many cultures," Brendan Godley, professor of conservation at the University of Exeter, says. "Turtles had an importance in dowries, with the bekko trade (trade in shells) being especially important in places like Japan. The Cayman Islands were essentially founded on sea turtle harvests. It was their major industry right up until the Fifties. It is on the national arms, their currency, the logo for the electric company, the tails of the planes."

Partly due to the difficulties in getting hold of turtles, mock turtle soup emerged as an appealing alternative in the 19th century. This was essentially the same as turtle soup but with offcuts of chicken or calf's head substituting the flesh of sea turtle and proved to be a considerable commercial success.

By the Twenties, "real" turtle soup in cans started to be sold in everyday shops, with firms such as Campbell's and Heinz rolling out canned turtle. It brought a meat that was once the preserve of the upper classes to the masses, but also spelt the end of turtle as a food product.

The industrialisation of turtle fishing had reduced their numbers drastically. Their fate was similar to that of the whales, they had gone from one of the most common large animals in our oceans to one of its most endangered and vulnerable. While the total catch made in the final years of whaling was followed closely by scientists and statisticians, the final years of the large-scale turtle trade were not reported in as much detail.

What finally put an end to the industrial turtle trade? According to Brendan Godley: "Their populations had taken a real hammering and had decreased massively by the middle of the last century, but the real thing that stopped it all was the advent of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites). Once you had Cites, you couldn't trade these products internationally. The Cayman Turtle Farm was selling turtle soup until the Eighties, but Cites meant they were left only with their domestic market."

So the turtle "industry" was largely wrapped up as a result of a far-reaching multilateral treaty - but just how big did this trade get?

In the last few years, researchers at Exeter have been trying to put together the numbers of turtles traded worldwide. The figures that have been established so far confirm that fishing for turtles was taking place on a truly industrial scale, even during the end of the last century. According to Ruth Thurstan's team, 2.2 million hawksbills were traded from the Pacific-Asia region alone between 1950 and 1999. The hawksbill, whose ornate shells were used to make musical instruments, jewellery and eye-glasses frames, is now critically endangered. The green turtle that supplied the meals of so many of the great and good is now listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. Both species are threatened by illegal hunting to this day.

Turtles are now icons of the conservation movement, what biologists call "charismatic megafauna". Much like the whales, sea turtles went from being viewed as a valuable commodity to a much-loved and revered animal, deserving of the highest levels of protection.

Today, the "most endangered turtle" is widely considered to be the Yangtze giant softshell river turtle, the last female of this species died in captivity in April. It is a particularly big loss as the under-developed shell structure connects today's living species with the very first turtles, which are thought to have evolved from lizard-like creatures around 260 million years ago. It is now highly likely that this species will follow the Yangtze river dolphin in becoming another Chinese species to die out due to hunting and habitat loss.

Despite their relatively precarious position today, turtles are one of the world's great survivors. Like the sharks and the crocodile, they have been roaming the world well before the first dinosaurs.

The earliest turtles are thought to have evolved during the late Permian period, 298 to 251 million years ago. They have remained largely the same physiologically, with no outside pressures forcing them to drastically adapt, even through the mass extinction at the end of the Permian, which wiped out 90% of life, a smaller extinction event at the start of the Jurassic and another high-impact event at the end of the Cretaceous, where 75% of species were lost.

Eunotosaurus africanus is our earliest known turtle. Dating from about 268 million years ago and first described by scientists in 2015, it would probably have looked like "a strange, gluttonous lizard that swallowed a small Frisbee", according to the people who found it. Eunotosaurus had a much longer tail than modern turtles and still had the teeth that would be lost in later turtle species. A hardened shell (carapace) would evolve later, for now, it only had the outline of a shell, perhaps similar to the very rare soft-shell turtles we still see today.

The end of the Cretaceous period not only saw the extinction of all the non-avian dinosaurs, but also the last of highly successful marine reptiles that had dominated the seas over the previous 100 million years, the dolphin-like ichthyosaurs, long-necked plesiosaurs and tyrannical mosasaurs. Yet the turtles continued.

The mass extinction created by human actions, now known as the Anthropocene, has proved to be more challenging for these great survivors. To the surprise of some, there is still a legal turtle harvest of around 42,000 turtles per year and turtle soup still appears in some parts of the world, but for Godley, this is not the biggest worry for the preservation of today's turtles. "The focus is often on relatively poor people taking turtles to eat, but many more die as a result of people fishing for tuna and shrimp," he says. "The most significant threat is accidental capture in fisheries, that can be on huge industrial wall-liners but also in artisanal fisheries."

Yet it is not all bad news. "Many populations are now rebounding," Godley says. "In fact, more populations are increasing than decreasing. This is because there is active protection around nesting areas and no large-scale fishing of turtles."

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