A sea turtle in the pool in the National Oceanographic Museum of Vietnam in Nha Trang, central Vietnam. Photo by Shutterstock/Zhukov Oleg.
Vietnam, along with Indonesia and Malaysia, is a major source, consumer and transit point in the international trade in marine turtle products, much of it destined for China, a report by British wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC said.
It puts the Southeast Asian nations under a microscope and highlights their failure to address the illegal trade.
Turtle meat and eggs are consumed in Vietnam as a delicacy and aphrodisiac. There is also the feng shui belief that burying stuffed marine turtles in the basement of the house brings luck. Some others believe wearing marine turtle products like bracelets is a cure for low blood pressure.
The trade in the marine creatures was outlawed in Vietnam in 2002. Indonesia has also prohibited it, but some parts of Malaysia still allow the eggs of some turtle species to be traded.
There were more than 50 seizures of illegal marine turtles, parts and products in Vietnam, 40 in Malaysia and 73 in Indonesia since 2015. Eggs were the most seized, particularly in Malaysia.
In Vietnam, there were 1,626 eggs, 82 live turtles and 156 stuffed ones confiscated. There were two seizures of shipments destined for Vietnam, one each in France and the Philippines, according to the report. The French police found 496 kilograms of hawksbill shells, while their Philippine counterparts seized 100 kilograms of dead hawksbill turtles.
In Vietnam, green sea turtles’ eggs are used as food, hawksbill turtle shells are used to make handicrafts, decorative items and ornaments and whole animals are stuffed.
Five sea turtle species are found in Vietnam: green sea, loggerhead, olive ridley, hawksbill, and leatherback. Their exploitation has contributed to a decline in the populations as well as the number of females coming to shore to lay eggs.
The TRAFFIC report warns that hawksbills, coveted primarily for their shell and considered the most exploited species in the illegal trade, are particularly threatened by the trade.
International trade in marine turtles involving Vietnam increased exponentially during the 1990s due to the demand from Japan, South Korea and China.
A survey done in early 2018 by Education for Nature-Vietnam found 39 out of 436 outlets in the country where marine turtle products were sold in the tourist hubs of Hanoi, Nha Trang, Vung Tau, Ha Tien, and Ho Chi Minh City.
The survey found that most of the products on sale were made from hawksbill turtles with a small number made from green sea turtles. No other species was positively identified.
Most of the products were trinkets like bracelets, fans, combs, and pendants, though whole preserved specimens were also sold.
Bracelets were most frequently observed (31 outlets), followed by whole turtles (15 outlets), TRAFFIC added.
Demand from Chinese nationals is also emerging, with tourists often buying wildlife products including combs and hair clips made of tortoiseshell during visits to coastal cities like Nha Trang and Da Nang. There has been a steady rise in the number of Chinese visitors to these places over the last five years.
Traffickers claim to smuggle huge quantities of marine turtle products out to traders in China but further investigation is needed to identify the route and who might be involved, the report said.
Violators that were arrested declared that fishermen often hunt marine turtles in Vietnam’s waters or in the oceans of the neighboring countries.
Improvements in fishing methods have led to more and more turtles being captured. From traditional boats and simple fishing gear and catching a single turtle per trip, Vietnamese fishermen have moved on to large boats with outboard motors. Middlemen are reportedly willing to fund modern equipment and boats.
"Considering these turtles’ populations are globally in decline, this level of persistent illegal trade presents a bleak future outlook for these marine nomads unless immediate, collaborative actions are taken as a matter of priority," Kanitha Krishnasamy, director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, said in a statement.
The conservation group also highlighted Vietnam’s weak law enforcement and the need to improve conservation of marine turtles through better collaboration and communication between national and local authorities.
It also pointed to Vietnam’s limited resources for conserving marine turtles.
"The capacity for effective enforcement of the existing legal system is hindered by a significant shortage of personnel trained to provide expert evidence, detect violations and prosecute offenders."
Corruption, a weak judicial system and light sentences are among the many factors that fuel the trade in Vietnam.
But trafficking is only one of the threats facing the turtles.
Their existence is also threatened by habitat destruction and illegal fishing. Plastic waste is also having a serious impact on marine creatures, including on turtles, which are at huge risk of fatally ingesting plastic in all stages of their life cycle.
Last month the International Union for Conservation of Nature said its 2017 survey found no hawksbill or leatherback turtle off Vietnam's northern and central coasts.