A large, voracious predator has quietly invaded China’s lakes and rivers, and is now menacing native species across the country: the snapping turtle.
Originally from North America, the animals — which belong to two species, the alligator snapping turtle and the smaller common snapping turtle — have been imported into China in large numbers for years, where they’re bred for their meat and sold as exotic pets.
On Chinese e-commerce platforms, snapping turtle hatchlings can be bought for as little as 20 yuan ($3) each. Buyers, however, are often unaware that their new pet will eventually grow into a monster.
Large adult snapping turtles are hulking, 80-kilogram brutes, with long claws, beaked snouts, and shells bristling with sharp ridges. If threatened, they go on the offensive, hissing and snapping at everything in sight. Their bite can easily remove a finger.
Now, the turtles appear to be finding their way into the wild, raising alarm among Chinese authorities and biologists.
Chinese media have reported dozens of cases of feral snapping turtles being found in local waterways over the past decade. The middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River are particular hotspots for snapping turtle sightings, a study published in 2020 found.
If the snapping turtles become established and begin breeding outside captivity, they are likely to cause havoc with local ecosystems, scientists warn. They are known for devouring everything from fish, frogs, and smaller turtles, to any mammals that happen to be in the water. A range of native Chinese species could become threatened.
“These invaders are predators from birth. As soon as they hatch, they will be feeding on invertebrates, fish, tadpoles, frogs, taking ever larger prey as they grow … Pretty much anything that can fit in their jaws would be at risk,” David Dudgeon, a professor of freshwater biology at the University of Hong Kong, tells Sixth Tone. “A particular concern would be native turtles, as snappers might compete with them for food and eat juveniles or even well-grown individuals.”
Snapping turtles appear to be entering ecosystems via several routes. In some cases, breeding farms have been hit by floods, which may have led to animals escaping. Tens of millions of turtles are bred in China every year for use as food, pets, and traditional medicine, with snapping turtles a popular choice due to their large size.
There have also been several instances of people deliberately setting snapping turtles free. Chinese Buddhists often release fish, turtles, and other animals into the wild as an act of mercy — a practice known as fangsheng. It’s also possible that pet owners are releasing snappers after realizing the creatures are not ordinary turtles.
Last year, a Chinese angler reportedly fished out a snapping turtle from a river, which had a shell covered with Buddhist symbols and mantras. In a separate incident, local residents called the police after spotting a man releasing two snapping turtles into the Jialing River, a tributary of the Yangtze, in the southwestern city of Chongqing.
Chinese authorities are attempting to crack down on fangsheng, which has led to a large number of non-native species being released into waterways, upsetting the balance of local ecosystems. Invasive species are considered a major threat to the country’s biodiversity.
In 2020, government experts included snapping turtles in a list of 17 non-native species that are dangerous to release into Chinese freshwater ecosystems. The reasons given were that snappers would eat large quantities of native fish, amphibians, turtles, and birds, and also bite people.
Chinese media have also run many stories in recent years referring to snapping turtles as “ecological assassins,” and reminding people not to keep them as pets or release them into the wild. Those who catch a snapping turtle in the wild are advised to kill and eat it, rather than release it back into the water.
Dudgeon agrees that cracking down on the release of snapping turtles should be a priority for Chinese law enforcement. “Preventing releases is much easier and more practicable than removing animals that have become established,” he says.
Ads for common snapping turtles for sale on the Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao. The text on the photos reads: “Sold wholesale by breeders, price includes postal delivery” (left) and “Intimidating to raise, delicious to taste.” From Taobao seller @志龙水产养殖基地 and @春之初会
But stopping the releases may be an uphill battle due to the sheer scale of the trade in snapping turtles. Over 400,000 snappers are sold as pets each year on the e-commerce platform Taobao alone. The animals are also for sale on other Chinese platforms including JD.com. Plastic crates swarming with baby snapping turtles are also a common sight at pet markets all over China.
China is not the only country where snapping turtles are a problem. Thousands have been caught in the wild in Japan, and both alligator and common snapping turtles are now on the country’s invasive species list. Snappers may also be colonizing Europe: Feral turtles have spread panic among bathers in France, Germany, and Italy in recent years.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A man holds an alligator snapping turtle that he found in Anyang, Henan province, April 3, 2013. IC)