Hatchling turtles are cute, small and inexpensive. Handled improperly, they also can make you sick.
Turtles are well-known carriers of salmonella, a common bacterial disease that causes fever, stomach cramps and dehydration and can lead to severe illness, especially in young children and elderly people. In August 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an advisory about an 11-state outbreak of salmonella bacteria linked to pet turtles.
“Don’t kiss or snuggle your turtle, and don’t eat or drink around it. This can spread Salmonella germs to your mouth and make you sick,” the agency warned.
Global trade in turtles is big business, and the U.S. is a leading source, destination and transit country. Some of this commerce is legal, some is not. For example, it has been illegal in the U.S. since 1975 to sell turtles with shells less than 4 inches (10 centimeters) in diameter because young children often contract salmonella from them. But it’s easy to find them for sale nonetheless.
As a conservation biologist, I work with colleagues from academia, nonprofit organizations and state and federal agencies to protect threatened species and combat wildlife trafficking. I also use the global wildlife trade to teach important ecological concepts and research skills. Here’s what we know about trade in turtles and how it threatens their survival.
Life in the slow lane
It’s hard to harvest turtles sustainably because they are so long-lived. Individual turtles of some species can survive for more than 100 years. Most turtles reach reproductive maturity late in life and have relatively few eggs, not all of which produce successful offspring.
To put this in context, compare a common female snapping turtle from the northern U.S. with a female white-tailed deer. Begin at the start of their lives and fast-forward 17 years. At this point, the snapping turtle will just be ready to reproduce for the first time; the deer will already be dead, but it may have produced over 600 descendants. It can take a female turtle her entire life to generate one or two offspring that in turn reach adulthood and replace her in the population.
In lakes and ponds, freshwater turtles serve as both predator and prey, and they help maintain good water quality by consuming decaying organisms. Terrapins reside in brackish water zones, where rivers flow into oceans and bays, and feed heavily on snails. Without terrapins present, the snails would quickly consume all underwater seagrasses, which would harm fish, shellfish, sea urchins and other organisms that rely on seagrasses for their survival.
International trade in turtles takes place on a massive scale. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, nearly 127 million turtles were exported just from the U.S. between 2002 and 2012. About one-fifth (24 million) came from the wild.
There’s no good way to quantify how many native turtles are harvested from the wild. But history shows what happens when they are hunted without limits. Historic demand for sea turtles, diamondback terrapins and snapping turtles as food led to such crashes in populations that management agencies had to regulate their harvesting.
Despite existing regulations, demand for some native North American turtle species is so strong that people collect, smuggle and sell the animals illegally. For example, in 2019 a Pennsylvania man was sentenced to six months in prison and fined $250,000 for trafficking thousands of protected diamondback terrapins.
Rare species such as wood turtles and Blanding’s turtles, as well as uniquely patterned individual turtles, command top value on the black market. Internet commerce, social media apps and online payment mechanisms make it easy for illegal buyers and sellers to connect.
Between 1998 and 2021, U.S. enforcement agencies intercepted at least 24,000 protected freshwater turtles and tortoises from 34 native species that were being illegally traded across the U.S. These animals may be held without food and water and in crowded spaces, sometimes wrapped in tape and stuffed in socks.
Before you purchase any live animal or wildlife-related product, review relevant local, state, national and international regulations. Just because something is for sale doesn’t mean it’s legal.
Make an informed decision about owning a turtle. Consider the size it will reach as an adult, its care requirements and its life span. Prioritize adopting one from a reputable rescue organization, and seek out a captive-bred turtle instead of a wild one.