Exotic turtles have been poached to near-extinction in Asia, but in Hong Kong, these species thrive

  • Scientists in Hong Kong are trying to save three species of turtles, CNN reports.

  • The turtles are being hunted for medicinal purposes and to keep as pets.

  • Scientists wanted to keep their numbers under wraps but they're now speaking out to spread awareness.

Although bustling metropolitan centers aren't always associated with wildlife conservation — and are sometimes seen as a barrier to it — a team of researchers in Hong Kong say the city is the last hope for certain species of exotic turtles in the region, CNN reports.

Small turtles, including the Beale's eyed turtle, the Big-headed turtle, and the Golden coin turtle, are often illegally poached by hunters looking to sell the animals for medicinal purposes or to sell as rare pets.

Each species is native to southern China and Southeast Asia and lives near freshwater habitats. The Big-headed turtle, a dark-green, nocturnal amphibian with a head so wide it cannot fit in its shell, is considered critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Beale's eyed turtle, another critically endangered species, also faces natural threats to its eggs, making reproducing more difficult. Meanwhile, the Golden coin turtle, a striped turtle once considered an integral part of Chinese folk medicine, can go for hundreds of American dollars, CNN reported.

Hands holding a turtle with a bright, green underbelly
Golden coin turtleDavid Wong/South China Morning Post

Sung Yik-hei, an associate professor at Lingnan University who has been working to preserve the creatures for over ten years, told CNN that he and his team were hesitant to publicize the turtles' plight out of fear more poachers would seek to hunt them.

But as their numbers dwindle, Sung believes the public should know about the dangers these turtles face and what the future may hold for them.

"The situation has come to a point where it cannot be worse," Sung told CNN.

The researchers told CNN that each species' population is now in the hundreds, with the Golden coin turtle being the rarest of all, with only around 100 in Hong Kong.

Experts told CNN that since 2015, authorities, including the city's police and local wildlife organizations, seized thousands of illegally hunted turtles. Despite this, the turtle trade continues to thrive.

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