Imported pet turtles see regulation

JAPAN - The Environment Ministry has decided to control the import and breeding of nonnative red-eared sliders, called "midori-game" (green turtles) in Japanese, which are popular as pets, because they have caused so much ecological damage that ishigame Japanese pond turtles have been pushed to the brink of being declared a "near threatened" species on the ministry's Red List of Endangered Species, ministry sources said.

However, the policy is expected to cause confusion, as it will be the first time breeding of such popular pets will be banned. In the most conservative estimate, there are several hundreds of thousands red-eared sliders kept in Japan.

Although the ministry plans to ban import first and delay the breeding ban until a later date, ministry officials are currently contending with responses from people who want to dispose of the animals or continue breeding them.

The red-eared slider, a species native to North America, is priced at about ¥500 (S$6) each at pet shops and street stalls. Its life span is believed to be about 40 years. Though young sliders are about five centimeters long, they can grow to about 30 centimeters, which makes it difficult to keep them in a small water tank at home. Many are therefore likely to be released into rivers and ponds, causing massive population growth. Currently, the species accounts for the greatest number of turtles in the nation.

The turtle has a higher fertility rate than other turtles, laying twice as many eggs as the ishigame, or Japanese pond turtle. It is bigger than the ishigame as well, which has allowed the nonnative turtles to deprive the ishigame of food and habitat. As the number of ishigame decreased, the species was designated as "near threatened" on the red list in 2012.

In September last year, the government drafted a plan "to study regulating" red-eared slider in its action plan to prevent damage to native turtle species, and decided to designate the slider as an "invasive alien species," which is banned from being imported and bred under the Invasive Alien Species Law.

Alien species regulated

In total, 107 species, including raccoons and bluegill, are designated as invasive alien species based on the law. To keep such species as pets, a potential owner is required to set up a cage to prevent the pet from running away and apply to the ministry for permission. The ministry estimates that the number of red-eared sliders kept as pets numbers in the hundreds of thousands, at least.

The government will approve breeding for now, but it fears it will be unable to handle the large influx of applications that might occur should every current breeder apply.

The ministry is worried many owners might release turtles into rivers and ponds, or simply abandon them after the ban is imposed. Therefore, it is considering the timing of imposing the ban and measures to accept turtles from those who want to get rid of them. It will also contemplate to what extent it will ask turtle owners for how long they intend to keep the turtles.

Pet dealers react

The pet industry strongly opposes such regulation.

"Midori-game, which are reasonably priced and easy to keep as pets, cannot be replaced by other turtles," said a pet sales representative of a Kansai region company, which imports and sells about 20,000 red-eared sliders a year. "The government must promote an attitude of 'taking care of them until the very end,' for instance, not regulation."

A pet shop owner in Hyogo Prefecture is sceptical about the regulation, saying, "I guess owners may release their turtles into the wild in the end because they cannot dispose of their loved pets and it is troublesome to get permission to keep them."

Prof. Takashi Yabe of Aichi Gakusen University, who specializes in herpetology, said: "The regulation makes sense because damage caused by red-eared sliders shouldn't be ignored any longer. However, if breeding is banned, a measure to prevent turtles from being tossed out into the wild is necessary. An arrangement should be made in which local municipalities take in and dispose of them."

45 per cent of wild turtles

According to a survey by the Suma Aqualife Park in Kobe Prefecture, red-eared sliders account for about half of wild turtles living in Shizuoka Prefecture and westward. The survey had been conducted over two years to 2012 by capturing turtles at 621 points of rivers and ponds from Shizuoka to Okinawa prefectures.

Among captured 4,645 turtles in total, red-eared sliders accounted for 45.2 per cent, which is the largest figure.

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