River cooters, sunning on a log, rank near the top of classic outdoor South Carolina scenes. With their dinner-plate-sized shells and long, yellow-streaked necks, the turtles reluctantly plop into the water and dive away when boats draw near. But some scientists worry the turtle-on-the-log image itself could be slipping away because of South Carolina’s lack of regulations on the capture and sale of freshwater turtles.
As the Asian market for turtle meat has boomed, other Southeastern states have put restrictions in place in recent years. Texas, one of the last holdouts, passed turtle export regulations last year. “We’re the last state where it’s just open warfare on turtles,” said Scott Pfaff, curator of herpetology at Riverbanks Zoo. “It’s the only animal exploited for food (in South Carolina) that requires no permit, so the species is being exterminated and South Carolina gets nothing.”
Turtle trapping wasn’t a problem in the United States until Asian economies boomed in the 1990s, especially in China, allowing middle-class families to afford turtle meat. The appetite for the meat quickly reduced the population of many species in Asia to endangered status.
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