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Advocates want to save Florida's wild diamondback terrapins through commercial breeding

Turtle with a yellow and black diamond-shaped shell with small black spots on light gray, nearly white skin .
Daniel Parker
Ornate diamondback terrapin in Hernando County.

"Instances of smuggling or poaching, a lot of the times the turtles are shipped in inhumane ways. You'll see awful photos of turtles wrapped up in duct tape, are piled up on top of each other," said Daniel Parker of USARK.

The diamondback terrapin, a unique turtle species found in Florida, has become a popular pet in Asia. The overseas demand has led to increased poaching. To fight this illegal market, advocates want to create a legal breeding program.

Diamondback terrapins live in brackish water habitats statewide, including salt marshes, barrier islands, mangrove swamps, tidal creeks and rivers, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Range map of Diamondback terrapins in Florida. Blue for Carolina, yellow for mangrove, red for Mississippi, gold for Florida and green for ornate.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

There are five subspecies living in Florida: Carolina, Florida east coast, mangrove, ornate, and Mississippi. Three of the subspecies are found only in the sunshine state.

The United States Association of Reptile Keepers Florida has asked the FWC to consider a formal proposal to allow the legal captive breeding of terrapins in the state.

Daniel Parker is with the association and said supplying the trade with captive-bred terrapins would discourage illegal collection of wild turtles.

The price of ornate diamondback terrapins skyrocketed to around $2,600 per turtle in Hong Kong, Parker said. The highest documented sale of a single terrapin there was over $4,000.

"When we start breeding these and putting them into the market, there's no way that turtle that's worth thousands of dollars will continue to be worth that value of money. The price is going to drop and there's going to be less motive for poachers to go get them out of the wild," said Parker.

"Instances of smuggling or poaching, a lot of the times the turtles are shipped in inhumane ways. You'll see awful photos of turtles wrapped up in duct tape, are piled up on top of each other. That's exactly what we don't want."

Legitimate breeders and sellers care for their animals and pack them in safe, humane ways when shipping, Parker said. In the 20 years he has been shipping turtles, not one has died in the process, he said.

In its proposal to the state, Parker's association references the success of Maryland’s captive breeding program for Northern diamondback terrapins.

“A single facility produces over 10,000 terrapins per year, mostly for export to China. A quick glance at ads for Northern diamondback terrapins shows the current retail price to be around $75 to $100. ... The subspecies which are endemic to Florida have the highest market values of all the subspecies,” according to the proposal.

Although poaching is rampant, terrapins face other threats. The number one documented killer of terrapins right now is crab traps because the turtles can drown in them, Parker said.

The turtles are also affected by pollution, ecosystem fragmentation due to development, and sea level rise.

“By FWC’s own sea level rise projections, two of these subspecies of terrapin that occur only in Florida, the mangrove terrapin and the Florida East Coast terrapins, are projected to lose all of their current habitat in 70 to 100 years,” he said.

“There isn't much of an assurance colony protecting these for the future, so we would prefer to see these turtles continue to exist, whether it's in captivity or the wild.”

Although, the projections are different for all of the subspecies, he said. For instance, rising seas might increase the amount of habitat available for the ornate terrapins.

United States Association of Reptile Keepers Florida is hoping FWC leaders will discuss the issue when they meet next on Nov. 30.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.