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Will Box Turtles Disappear From Texas?

What is the problem?
Box turtles, a familiar and charming part of Texas wildlife, seem to be declining. Commercial collection for the pet trade may substantially harm box turtle populations. Over the past four years, data collected by Texas Parks & Wildlife show that 1,878 three-toed box turtles have been sold in Texas, along with 2,005 desert box turtles and 7,333 ornate box turtles. There is relatively little commercial trade in captive-bred adult box turtles, so this means most of these turtles were taken from the wild.
Once collected for the pet trade, box turtles are often kept in filthy conditions, stacked on top of one another and often without access to food and water. It is estimated that up to half the box turtles die before being sold, and box turtles sold from pet stores and flea markets often suffer from malnutrition, dehydration, and infection. It is probably safe to say that being collected for the pet trade is a death sentence for most box turtles.

Why are box turtles so important?
To some of us, box turtles are important just because they are, because they have such a fascinating body plan or such charming faces, or such interesting behavior. But not everyone is an out-and-out box turtle fan, and these animals still have something to offer to those who simply enjoy the outdoors. Each plant and each animal adds richness to the world of nature. Although by itself it might seem a small thing, each plant or animal that is lost takes away some of the detail and texture of the natural places we enjoy.
On top of that, each plant and animal has a role to play in nature. When we remove one, others are affected, sometimes in unpredictable ways.
Turtles have been here in something like their present form since before the age of dinosaurs. An individual box turtle may outlive you or me. It seems terribly shortsighted of us to waste such remarkable animals, turning them into disposable pets just for a few dollars.

Isn't habitat protection more important?
Our cities are sprawling out into the countryside, turning more and more acres into houses, stores, and streets. We need to preserve some of the places where box turtles live, keeping the natural plant and animal communities intact. While protecting habitat is extremely important, we cannot ignore the harm that commercial collection does. Box turtle populations can decline if overcollection occurs, even when those populations live in undeveloped habitat. Data from Louisiana showed significantly reduced turtles from a collected area compared with similar areas that were protected from collection.

Why does collecting them do so much harm?
Their reproductive strategy makes each individual adult very important. A box turtle may have to survive for upwards of 10 years before it can mate and lay eggs. Females lay relatively few eggs, and many of the nests are dug up and eaten by raccoons and other predators. The babies are very vulnerable for their first few years and are often eaten. And so, the box turtle produces very few babies that survive to adulthood. Why haven't they died off? Because over a long lifespan they have many chances to enter the reproductive lottery. Box turtles may often live for 50 years and sometimes much more. A female box turtle may be able to lay many clutches of eggs over her lifetime. Even though most of the eggs are eaten and most of the babies die, she may have produced a few adults by the time her life is over.
What if our female box turtle is run over on the road, or picked up by a collector? She is now out of the reproductive lottery, and that may take away 40 or more years of reproductive activity. Each turtle that is taken out of the population removes a significant part of the reproductive potential of that population much more significant than removing a snake or a lizard, for example. When the population is thinned beyond a certain point, adults are unlikely to find each other for mating. This means not enough babies can be produced for the population to survive. The remaining adults may be seen for quite a long time (since they live long lives). That leads people to think that box turtles are still around and maybe doing OK, when the population is reproductively dead. When those individuals are gone, there will be no more.

What are we doing about it?
A number of people have asked that the commercial collecting, buying, and selling of wild box turtles in Texas be stopped. Several years ago, Louisiana passed a law prohibiting the commercial collection of box turtles. We need a similar law or regulation.
Currently, Texas requires dealers to have a permit to buy and sell box turtles, but no limit is placed on the numbers that can be taken. We must do more than that. Because box turtles can be harmed so much by the removal of a limited number of adults, we must stop the commercial harvest of wild box turtles if we are to protect this part of our Texas heritage. So far, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) has stated that they do not believe that the numbers reported demonstrate a problem.
We encourage people to write letters to TPWD and to their Texas legislator. We think personal letters are best, putting into your words a statement that box turtles are in trouble and that they are worth saving. The letter can quote any of the information in this document, and you can ask them to prohibit the commercial collection and sale of box turtles.

Write to:
Chairman, Texas Parks & Wildlife Commission
Mr. Robert Cook, Executive Director
4200 Smith School Road
Austin, Texas 78744

A law prohibiting commercial collection of wild box turtles would require action from the Texas legislature. You can write your Texas Representative or Senator, or send him or her a copy of the letter you write to TPWD. You can find your state legislator at: http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/

Why not wait for studies to be complete?
We believe that decisions about wildlife conservation should be grounded in scientific knowledge. However, not much is known about the current status of box turtle populations in Texas. The studies that would give us more information are mostly not being done and there is little funding to support such studies. If we wait for the research to prove that commercial collecting is not sustainable, it may be too late. Box turtle populations could be seriously thinned by then, and they may not be able to recover once their populations drop too far. The scientific evidence that we do have about how box turtles live points solidly and clearly to the need for these animals to be protected.
Some ideas from the Box Turtle Partnership of Texas -
Thinking about getting a box turtle?
1. Box turtles are long-lived animals that could outlive you if given good care. Getting a box turtle just to have a fun pet for a few months or a year is not a good decision. What will happen to the turtle then? Will you have someone who will take the turtle then and give it good care?
2. Box turtles require some specific kinds of care, and without that care they gradually waste away. They don't show that they're sick right away, and can linger on while pathetically ill. A commitment to care for a box turtle means being committed to providing an area with water, space to dig in, places to get sunlight (a cardboard box or an aquarium definitely won't work), and a suitable temperature range. It means providing a varied diet (lettuce and hamburger is a death sentence). Baby box turtles are delicate and should be attempted only if you have studied their needs carefully.
3. You can get a box turtle without harming wild populations of turtles if you contact a breeder or someone who rescues and adopts out turtles that have been found or donated. Adult box turtles in pet stores or flea markets or such places have almost always been taken out of the wild. Please don't support this.
4. There are some good books, websites, and other media that show how to take care of box turtles. If you plan to get a box turtle, please spend some time learning how to take good care of them, and you may have a charming and long-lived companion.

If You Find a Box Turtle ...
Things You Can Do To Help the Traveling Turtle:
- Try not to hit it with your car! (If you can do so safely)
- If you stop for the turtle, please do so carefully and avoid any accidents. Pull off the road, and then do not walk into oncoming traffic to save the turtle
- Pick up the turtle and move it off the road in the direction in which it was heading. (If you put it off the road on the wrong side, it may come back out onto the road.)
- Don't move the turtle down the road to better habitat unless the present location is unsuitable for turtles (such as neighborhoods, shopping malls, or being bulldozed). Turtles try to find their old "neighborhood" and don't do well if moved away from home.
- Don't collect the turtle for a pet. There are other ways to get a turtle. If you take the turtle home, it hurts the population of turtles just as if the turtle had been killed.
- If you find the turtle out in the field or in the woods, admire it, photograph it, enjoy it, linger over it as an experience you may not have so easily in the future, count yourself lucky but please, please do not move it or take it home as a pet!
Thank you!
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