A tough world for turtles

Though they hatched out late last summer and early fall, the young of many freshwater turtles — including Eastern mud, painted and pond slider turtles — have yet to see the light of day. Typical of their species, the hatchlings have spent the winter in their nests underground and won’t come out until the weather warms up, which might be this weekend.

When the baby turtles emerge, they will enter a world that is increasingly hostile to their survival. Many of Georgia’s 19 freshwater turtle species face a variety of human-induced threats — collection of turtles from the wild for the pet trade, the loss of wetlands to development, a greater danger of female turtles being flattened by cars when crossing highways to reach nesting grounds.

Another looming threat is the consumption of turtles as gourmet food in Asian countries, especially China. China’s huge appetite for turtle, served in soups and stews, has nearly eradicated the reptiles from many streams across Asia.

Now, Chinese importers have turned to the turtle-rich waters of Georgia and other Southeastern states.

Georgia law allows the unregulated and unlimited harvest of freshwater turtles except for six species protected as rare, endangered or threatened. Also restricted is the harvest of box turtles, which are in decline because of habitat loss.

But hundreds of thousands of other freshwater turtles — especially softshell, cooters and sliders — are being shipped each year from Southeastern states to Asian countries, primarily China. Asian folk beliefs hold that eating turtles contributes to long life and sexual prowess.

Because turtles breed late in life and usually have low reproductive and nestling survival rates, they are vulnerable to overharvest. Removing only 5 percent of adult female turtles from an area can lead to serious population declines. Once a population is depleted, it may take many years for the species to bounce back, says John Jensen, herpetologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Alarmed by the situation, conservation groups have petitioned Georgia, home to 8 percent of the world’s freshwater turtle species, and other states to regulate commercial turtle harvests. To that end, two turtle-protecting bills are pending in Georgia’s General Assembly. One, however, is stuck in the House Fish, Game and Parks Committee; the other is hung up in the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee.

A statement from nine of Georgia’s leading herpetologists, based at universities and Zoo Atlanta, warns: “Failure to enact informed legislation regulating turtle harvest in Georgia will likely lead to rapid overharvesting of Georgia’s freshwater turtle population. Overharvesting ... will ultimately require crisis conservation legislation, which will be more costly, burdensome and less effective than [enacting] regulation now.”

In the sky: The moon is in the last quarter tonight. Look for it to rise about midnight and set around midday, says David Dundee, an astronomer with Tellus Northwest Georgia Science Museum. Venus, shining brightly, is low in the west just after sunset. Mars rises out of the east at sunset and is visible throughout the night. Jupiter is low in the east just before sunrise. Saturn rises out of the east a few hours after sunset. Mercury is not easily visible now.