Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times
Live softshell turtles are on sale at a fish market in L.A.'s Chinatown.
The reptiles, especially softshell turtles, are prized in China as food and as a source for traditional medicines. U.S. experts fear the trade could lead to extinctions.
By Kim Christensen
December 27, 2008
The turtle tank at Nam Hoa Fish Market is empty, but not to worry: The manager of this bustling Chinatown store says he has plenty in back.
"Big ones," he says, spreading his hands as wide as a Christmas turkey.
He nods to a worker, who slides a large, waxed-cardboard box from a stack behind the counter and strips off the lid. Inside is a squirming burlap bag, from which he dumps two 15-pound softshell turtles that hit the concrete with a clop, then flail helplessly on their backs.
"Miami," the shopkeeper says of the reptiles' origins. "All from Miami."
Fresh off a plane at Los Angeles International Airport, one of the hubs of the sprawling international turtle trade, the critters will help feed a huge and growing appetite for freshwater turtles as food and medicine.
The demand pits ancient culture against modern conservation and increasingly threatens turtle populations worldwide. As Asian economies boomed, more and more people began buying turtle, once a delicacy beyond their budgets. Driven in particular by Chinese demand, Asian consumption has all but wiped out wild turtle populations not just in China, but in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere in the region. Now conservationists fear that the U.S. turtle population could be eaten into extinction.