Local authorities are rushing to track down red-eared slider turtles after a shady import of the invasive reptiles was detected and several provinces reported seeing them in open water
A man releases a red-eared slider turtle into a pool at a pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. While the importer of 40 tons of red-eared slider turtles was told to destroy or re-export them, experts have said that the safest and most economical solution is to cook the turtles.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development on Saturday (August 14) instructed its Fisheries Department and provincial agencies to investigate the possible invasion of red-eared slider turtles in Vietnam.
The ministry also pledged to issue "determined" measures to eradicate the harmful reptiles.
The red-eared slider turtle (Trachemys scripta elegans) is native to North America and was included in the list of the world's 100 worst invasive species by the Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG) - a global network of scientific and policy experts on invasive species, organized under the auspices of the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Invasive species are organisms, usually transported by humans, which successfully establish themselves in, and then overcome, otherwise intact, pre-existing native ecosystems.
On April 16, environmental police in the Mekong Delta's Vinh Long Province found that Can Tho Import Export Seafood Joint Stock Company (Caseamex) had imported 40 tons of red-eared slider turtles over two days from April 3 to 4 without permission from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The company had declared they imported the turtles for food but later bred them at their farm in Phu Thanh Commune in Vinh Long Province's Tra On District. Caseamex claimed they were not aware that the turtles were invasive.
Following several subsequent discussions from concerned agencies, the Fisheries Department on August 10 instructed the company to either re-export or destroy the turtles by the end of this month.
On August 17, Nguyen Chi Thao, deputy director of Can Tho Import Export Seafood Joint Stock Company said the company is in negotiations with the US exporter to re-export the turtles.
"We had planned to either sell them for food or re-export them and we decided upon the latter," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.
Meanwhile, several provinces, including An Giang, Can Tho, Vinh Long, Soc Trang, Hue, Quang Tri and Lao Cai, have reported finding red-eared slider turtles being sold widely as pets and seeing the turtles in open water. The threat is real because local people often release captive turtles and other animals to pray for good luck in the seventh month of the Lunar Calendar, local media reported.
According to the Ho Chi Minh City-based non-profit conservation organization, Wildlife at Risk (WAR), the red-eared slider turtle adapts to many aquatic environments and is very opportunistic. It poses a high risk to ecosystems in Vietnam.
"They prefer calm water with muddy bottoms. Vietnam's river systems prove a suitable habitat for this species to thrive and attack the local wildlife," said Simon Faithful, WAR's technical advisor.
"Vietnam's ecosystems are extremely fragile and any introduced species will harm this balance and in turn affect the food chains, which will affect the human population," he said, stressing that Vietnam is a nation that relies on the river for food, transport and income.
Shyama Pagad of the Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG) said that the continuous release of exotic pet turtles into natural ecosystems increases the risk of parasite transmission to native species as the red-eared slider is known to carry nematodes and bacteria.
"Reptiles, including turtles, are well-recognized reservoirs for Salmonella, and are a source of human salmonellosis. In people, salmonella causes diarrhea, fever, and nausea and can lead to blood poisoning, meningitis or even death," she told Thanh Nien Weekly via email.
Pagad said some of the introductions into the environment are intentional and many unintentional. Some escape from nurseries or gardens, some are released as a contaminant; some come from illegal stockings, through ballast water and hull fouling while others come through the live food trade and aquaculture and marine culture. Meanwhile, pathogens spread from non native to native species.
In a recent effort to tackle invasive species in the country, the Vietnam Environment Administration's Biodiversity Conservation Department has issued a plan through 2020. The agency will conduct research to compile a full list of existing invasive species, estimate damages and propose measures to deal with the problem.
However, specialists said more should be done in both the short and long term.
"Vietnamese authorities need to step in and work with conservation organizations nationwide to stop the farming of non-native species, laws must be put in place and enforced if people are breaking them," said Simon Faithful of WAR.
Shyama Pagad of ISSG said that the best point at which to control a potentially invasive species is prior to their introduction.
"Once an invasive species is established in an area, it becomes more difficult and costly to manage it. Quick action may be essential to eradicating an invasive species before it becomes established," she said.
According to the Vietnam Environment Administration's Biodiversity Conservation Department, there are currently more than 90 invasive plants in Vietnam.
There are no official statistics for invasive animals so far. The most common invasive species in Vietnam include giant sensitive tree (Mimosa pigra), water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) channeled apple-snail (Pomacea canaliculata) and red palm weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus).
Invasive species are responsible for eradicating 40 percent of extinct species worldwide.