Mexico Seizes 15,000 Turtles, Some of Them Endangered, Bound for China

An illegal shipment of 158 crates of live turtles, some endangered, was seized by Mexican authorities on Tuesday in outer Mexico City. The cargo was due to be delivered to China.

More than 250 of the 15,000 turtles were found dead in the crates. Species included Mexican giant musk turtles, white-lipped turtles, narrow-bridged musk turtles and red-eared terrapin or red-eared slider turtles.

The find comes among growing concerns about the delivery and consumption of exotic creatures and their possible transmission of the novel coronavirus. COVID-19 has been linked with bats, with the first identified cases tracked to a wet market with live animals in the city of Wuhan.

Scientific researchers at Shandong University in China recently took samples from more than 220 bats from caves in Yunnan province, finding a virus very similar in makeup to SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus). The researchers said: "Our paper shows very clearly that these events occur naturally in wildlife. This provides strong evidence against SARS-CoV-2 being a laboratory escape."

The COVID-19 virus has also been detected in other animals, including dogs and cats. Experts in Hong Kong researched 17 pets living with people who had the novel coronavirus. After tests, they found both a German shepherd and a Pomeranian had contracted the disease, but neither had visible symptoms.

The Mexican government's environmental office said to The Associated Press that the turtles in the recently found shipment were not marked in accordance with regulations and the shipment did not have the correct paperwork to be transported. The shipment was later delivered to a conservation center outside Mexico City.

Mexican Mud Turtle
Mud turtles in a river in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco State, Mexico. Though endemic to this region the species is one of the most threatened freshwater turtle species, due to the dramatic urban growth. ULISES RUIZ / AFP/Getty Images

Rare varieties of turtle can reach $300 apiece, and the turtle smuggling trade is worth millions of dollars worldwide. Approximately 6.5 million live turtles were exported from the U.S. between 2016 and 2019. Many species are sold in Asian food markets, while others become pets.

According to the Turtle Conservancy around half the species on earth will become extinct by the end of the century. Turtles are among the most vulnerable, as they don't grow and reproduce as quickly.

"Global awareness of the wildlife trade is at an all-time high, and there has never been stronger public demand for its abolition. China and Vietnam have taken significant steps toward banning (most) wildlife trade," wrote the Turtle Conservancy in a press statement. "While this is the type of reaction we need from governments, the stricter laws and enforcement have not reduced demand. It will take major shifts in public opinion to stop the behaviors that destroy wildlife and perpetuate this obvious threat to global health.