Shelling out- Rare turtles in Beijing now face the threat of life as a pet.

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Shelling out- Rare turtles in Beijing now face the threat of life as a pet.

Post  Admin on Mon Jul 16, 2012 9:19 pm

Global Times 6/12/12, By Matthew Jukes-While BMWs, Gucci handbags and Bordeaux wines remain the foremost status symbols of China's nouveau riche, conspicuous consumption doesn't end there for young people in the capital. Exotic pets have become one of the latest fads to strike the nation, drawing the ire of animal rights campaigners.

Last year, a coal baron bought a rare Tibetan Mastiff for around 10 million yuan ($1.5 million), and breeders revealed a boom in sales around the country. But the trend for fauna as status symbols didn't just stop with millionaires. Other exotic creatures, including spiders and reptiles, some imported from abroad, have become fair game when decorating the decadent apartments of Beijing. Among them the endangered Chinese box turtle, a former restaurant delicacy which is now being kept as a pet.

"From both the perspective of animal rights and environmental protection, I would say that it's absolutely wrong to keep an exotic animal as a pet, let alone an endangered one," said Qin Xiaona, director of the Capital Animal Welfare Association. "I understand that some people may buy them in pursuit of some kind of rare excitement, or maybe they are just curious about a new animal. But there are plenty of domesticated animals that are far more suitable to keep as pets, such as dogs, cats and fish, why not stick with those?"

The Chinese box turtle has always been in high demand in China. The shells were prized for their use in fortune telling and traditional medicine, while restaurants valued the flesh as a hotpot delicacy. The latest incarnation for the creatures as pets has only served to increase demand and prices.

Get it on eBay

"The turtles are so expensive because of their rarity," said Liu Xiaoxu, a licensed seller of the turtles online. "The female box turtle only lays eggs twice a year and only about two eggs each time. Also, unlike many other species, box turtles are amphibian, which makes them stand out as pets."

Liu is selling the turtles for around 1,000 yuan each, and claims to have sold four or five in just the last two weeks. He says that his breeds, imported from the south of China, are actually cheaper. Other species, raised in Anhui Province, can sell for double the amount.

"There's an old saying that Yellow-margined box turtles have the ability to cure cancer. That's not to mention how widely used their rare, compact, domed shells were in fortune telling. Even today they are seen as a symbol of longevity that can ward off evil," added Liu. "But there are people that just treat box turtles as pets. They are usually better-off than most, as the prices are much higher than the red-eared sliders and other species that you can find on the street."

Last week, the Beijing police announced they were going to crack down on vendors selling exotic pets by post. Despite this, the former foodstuff remains listed on online marketplaces, such as Taobao. Other sellers contacted by the Global Times admitted that they could sell up to 1,000 Chinese box turtles each year, mostly to businessmen, and insisted that customers were strictly instructed in how to look after them beforehand.

A young office worker, who gave his name only as Huang, bought one earlier in the year, and is now keeping it in a basin-like terrarium in the middle of his apartment. While the purchase of a box turtle had seemed like a good idea at the time, his pet care routine is proving to be more work than anticipated.

"I got him from a tiny boutique. He's almost worth the same in weight as gold," said Huang. "But you have to be careful and wash your hands every time you go near them, as they can spread salmonella. Not to mention the fact that you have to keep giving them fresh foods to keep their health up, and provide them with a lot of space. It's really a lot to think about."

Huang is not alone in his desire to look out for his shelled companion, and a brief search on Chinese microblogging portal Sina Weibo, turns up hundreds of results for turtle fan clubs, care groups and individual pet pages. Behind the vacuous images, close ups and emoticons however, there is a more pressing issue.

Endangered and 'at risk'

The rarity of the Chinese box turtle has not just been noticed by sellers and pet lovers. It is thought that half of the some 328 species of turtles and tortoises still extant in the world are now endangered or nearing extinction. Most species of the Asian box turtle genus have been listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) red list as "at risk." In China, a license is required to sell them, to prove that they have not been sourced from the wild.

Creatures taken out of their own natural habitats, or kept in unfamiliar conditions can suffer, while owners who are unaware of the hidden risks can receive injuries or illness, suggests Qin. She added that keeping exotic pets can be dangerous both for the animals and their owners and high demand for such pets can have knock-on effects on the market.

On 24 May this year, Taiwanese media reported that a shipment containing 811 endangered turtles, including box turtles, had been stopped from taking its payload over to the Chinese mainland. The turtles were thought to be heading for the pet markets of Guangdong Province, as well as local restaurants.

"China's market is so huge that any demand here can bring about the killing and capture of animals in other parts of the world," added Qin. "The number of creatures captured may increase out of a motivation for profit, just as has happened over the last six years with rhino horns and ivory. All animals have their position in nature, including turtles. So I am 100 percent sure that keeping exotic turtles will break this delicate balance."

Qin wanted to remind our readers that it is illegal to keep wild animals at home or at any organization that is not licensed by the Forestry Bureau, and urged people not to buy endangered or exotic pets. If they have already done so, they should keep them in the best possible fashion after seeking professional advice.

Jiang Jie contributed to this story

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