Poachers are putting turtle populations at risk across southern Ontario, say conservationists, by selling them on the black market as novelties or food.
Exact numbers are scarce, but according to researcher Ron Brooks, poachers appear to be collecting turtles and selling them as delicacies to ethnic markets, for food such as turtle soup.
"It's very difficult to find out what's going on," said Brooks, who for 40 years studied turtles at Algonquin Provincial Park.
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Two of the eight species of turtle that live in Ontario, spotted and wood turtles, are classified as endangered. Others are considered “at risk.”
Brooks says because of the risk from poaching, researchers take precautions in their work, such as remaining vague about the location of turtle populations in studies and reports.
“Traffickers read the reports and read scientific publications to find out where the turtles are," he said.
Meanwhile, smugglers import other species of turtles to sell as pets in Ontario.
Studies suggest wildlife smuggling is a global industry earning as much as $30 billion US per year, though Environment Canada spokesman Mark Johnson said there is no information on its profitability in Canada due to the "complex, multinational and covert nature of wildlife crime."
A man from Cobden, Ont., between North Bay and Ottawa, was earlier this year fined $5,000 and sentenced to a six-month conditional sentence for importing turtles across the U.S. border.
Joe Crowley, who is an at-risk species specialist at the Ministry of Natural Resources and part of the Canadian Herpetological Society, said the ministry's enforcement officers have been involved in several "large international investigations."
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"Turtles are definitely in pretty big trouble in Ontario," Crowley said, adding that there are various contributing factors, such as loss of habitat and road mortality.
Crowley said turtles have low reproductive rates, so the deaths of adults can be detrimental to a population.
"Poaching is an especially problematic threat for the rare species, the ones that have high demand in the pet trade," he said. "A single poaching event could theoretically wipe out a population.