Exports of a rare kind of Japanese pond turtle have increased sharply this year, prompting the government to impose partial restrictions on shipments to conserve the species.
The nihon ishigame (Japanese stone turtle) is in strong demand in China and Hong Kong as an ingredient for health food. It is also popular as a rare pet from Japan.
In Japan, the animal is also known as zeni (money) turtle because the brownish-red shell of juveniles resembles a coin used in the Edo Period (1603-1868).
Government permission has been required to export the species for more than two years, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington Convention.
The requirement took effect in June 2013. Between that date and September this year, some 28,000 turtles were exported, according to the Environment Ministry. Of the total, 15,000 were exported since March this year, the month in which exports hit a record 3,561.
The ministry has now slapped a temporary ban on exports of wild Japanese pond turtles of breeding age. Exporters cannot ship animals with shells 8 cm or larger, and the restriction applies to both sexes.
The ministry continues to permit the capture of turtles as pets, and the export of juveniles and those born in captivity.
One reason for the rise in exports may be because in March the ministry imposed a ban on exports of Asian brown pond turtles, which are endemic to the Yaeyama Islands, southwest of Okinawa, whose population has plunged through over-exploitation.
Japanese pond turtles have also been on the decline amid competition with red-eared sliders — a popular home pet that is often released into the wild — and cross-breeding with Reeve’s turtles.
The Japanese pond turtle population is estimated to be around 980,000 nationwide, so higher exports are not considered a threat to the species. However, it could disappear from certain localities, including waterways in Aichi and Shizuoka prefectures.
Some experts warn the species could be headed for trouble if restrictions are not imposed on captures.
Professor Takashi Yabe of Aichi Gakusen University, a turtle expert, says the domestic distribution of the Japanese pond turtle should be strictly controlled amid the pressure on numbers.