The first place I shopped in Bangkok was the Oh Nut market. On my first trip to the market, I was surprised to see a robust supply of live turtles!
The turtles in those pictures are Malayan Snail-eating Turtles, and they make up the vast majority of the turtles that I’ve seen in the market. But other species make their way into the pots as well.
Southeast Asian Box Turtle mixed in with the snail-eating turtles
A Black Marsh Turtle is the odd one out in this photo
Turtles aren’t the only herps found in Bangkok’s markets. Chinese Edible Frogs (quite an apt name, eh?) are found in every market as well:
I don’t have a problem with selling frogs or turtles as food, though questions could be raised about the conditions they are kept in. However, there are some environmental problems that could be created by this practice.
The first problem is the rarity of turtles in Thailand. While turtles are common in city parks and temple ponds, they are quite rare in the wild. In fact, though I have seen hundreds of turtles in the manmade waterways of Bangkok, I’ve only seen 3 wild turtles in all the time I’ve spent in natural habitat. Due to habitat destruction and hunting for food, almost every species of turtle in Thailand has seen its populations drop, and about half of the turtle species are endangered.
Turtles grow slowly and live a very long time. They’re not the kind of animal that can replenish its numbers quickly when many of them are getting killed off. If the market turtles are being grown in farms, then there’s no problem. But if the market turtles are being taken from the wild, then they’re being harvested unsustainably, and their numbers in the wild will continue to decrease. The fact that random other species of turtle are showing up in the same bins as the snail-eating turtles makes it very likely that at least some of these market turtles were harvested from the wild.
The other major problem is releases. Some of the people who buy these frogs and turtles don’t intend to eat them, but are planning to release them for good luck or as a part of a religious ceremony. This practice may sound like a positive for the environment, but releasing captive herps back into the wild is a big problem. Captive herps are stuffed into tight cages with many other animals where it is easy for diseases to fester and spread. When the herps are released those diseases can decimate wild populations. Also, many well-meaning people end up releasing the turtles or frogs into places where they wouldn’t be found naturally. Those “introduced” herps may infect the native herps with disease, or they might outcompete them for food or other resources, thereby further harming native populations. The Tourism Authority of Thailand has further information on releasing turtles into the wild.
The above photos show a typical Bangkok pond with a hodgepodge of released turtles. The lone native Malayan Snail-eating Turtle and Southeast Asian Box Turtle in these photos are outnumbered by the Red-eared Sliders, an introduced species from America
A further problem released herps can cause is hybridization. Thailand National History Museam research associate Michael Cota informed me that hybrids between Chinese Edible Frogs and American Bullfrogs have been created by frog farmers. These hybrids could be big environmental problems in the wild, either outcompeting native frogs or interbreeding with them until there are no purebreed wild frogs left. And, in fact, I spotted one of those hybrids in a pond in Chiang Mai:
To recap, frog farming or turtle farming by itself isn’t inherently bad for the environment. But if the turtles are being captured from the wild, or if the frogs and turtles are being released back into the wild, then wild populations can be damaged by the markets. It is worth considering whether having frogs and turtles in our markets brings enough benefit that we’re willing to risk not having wild frogs and turtles in our lakes and streams.