“Someone is coming up behind you,” species-at-risk biologist Scott Gillingwater says. We lower our voices and change the subject. The two of us look conspicuous; we’re wearing chest waders and sun hats and are standing on the edge of a potholed road beside a grassy path near a marshy wetland. I turn to see a man with binoculars and a large camera approaching. He is either a birder or a turtle poacher posing as a birder. “Anything good?” Gillingwater asks him, gesturing skyward. “No, not yet,” he replies. 

We wait for the man to disappear down the road and step onto the path to begin our clandestine operation. Gillingwater, who works for the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority in southwestern Ontario, has agreed to show me the top-secret area where he studies spotted turtles. It is one of Canada’s last natural strongholds for the endangered reptile, he says, home to “an exceptionally important population.” 

An endangered spotted turtle in southern Ontario.
A secret location in southwestern Ontario is one of Canada’s last natural strongholds for the endangered spotted turtle, which is often sought out by illegal poachers. Photo: Scott Gillingwater / Upper Thames River Conservation Authority

Why such stealth? The small black turtles with yellow spots and orange markings are at risk of dying out, and one of the biggest reasons is illegal poaching. “They are small, personable, rare and beautiful. Like jewels,” says Gillingwater, who has been surveying turtles on behalf of the largely volunteer program Southern Ontario At Risk Reptiles for 30 years. “Unfortunately, globally, they are one of the most coveted reptile species on the planet. An adult spotted turtle can go for a few hundred dollars in the U.S. or thousands of dollars overseas, depending on how beautiful the animal is. That’s why we don’t want anyone finding out the core areas where these animals are. A good person tells a good person tells a good person. And a bad person overhears.”

Networks of bad people operate around the globe. An international treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, to which Canada is a signatory, aims to restrict trade in species threatened with extinction, including spotted turtles. 

“It’s just like you see on TV,” says Bruce Weissgold, a retired conservation consultant who worked on the endangered species convention for 25 years at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and then in the wildlife conservation program at the federal State Department. He lives in Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. “Poachers will certainly travel interstate, hire mules, camp out, rent hotel rooms, search for middle men, search to hire collectors to acquire the animals. The mules could be anything from a kid in college to someone they met in the bar one night and struck up a conversation with.”

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Weissgold says spotted turtles are a lucrative business and penalties for trafficking wildlife are low compared to trafficking guns or drugs. Turtles are also easy to hide. “Typically when turtles are trafficked, they are put in socks. Their appendages are taped into their shells, so they don’t scratch and move around and cause somebody to notice that they are in there.” He says they sometimes die in transit. 

In 2014, a Canadian man was arrested at a Detroit airport trying to smuggle 1,007 turtles to China. He had stuffed them into rubber snow boots and cereal boxes in his luggage. And in 2021, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a Chinese national was sentenced to 38 years in prison on a money laundering conviction for financing a ring of people who collected, packed, repacked and smuggled more than 1,500 turtles out of the U.S. (One of the players was also caught with child pornography.) 

Illegal collection is not the only threat. Spotted turtles are also affected by road mortality, habitat fragmentation and habitat degradation by invasive species such as phragmites, a plant that spreads quickly and outcompetes native species for nutrients and water. Each adult turtle death has a big impact. The turtles are slow to reach sexual maturity, don’t lay very many eggs and have a high juvenile mortality rate. 

It is estimated there are fewer than 2,500 spotted turtles left in Canada. According to a 2015 report by the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario, an independent group of experts that considers which species should be listed at risk, the turtles have experienced a continual decline at most sites in the province — no turtles have been reported for at least 20 years at about 75 per cent of known locations. “There are so few left in the wild,” Gillingwater says. “It is heartbreaking.”

A spotted turtle that is dead from being run over by a car.
Illegal collection is not the only threat to spotted turtles. They are also affected by road mortality, habitat fragmentation and habitat degradation by invasive species. Photo: Scott Gillingwater / Upper Thames River Conservation Authority

All of this is why Gillingwater, and others in the field, are so cautious. This spring, when environmental organization Ontario Nature published its comprehensive atlas of range maps for the province’s reptiles and amphibians, it withheld the geographic coordinates of spotted turtle populations. “Their locations are kept secret because any one event, such as a person coming in to poach turtles where they overwinter or breed, could be catastrophic for that small, isolated population,” says Jenna Quinn, conservation science manager at Ontario Nature, who lives in Kitchener, Ont. 

“Leave turtles wild,” she says. “Nature is not a commodity. We should find a way to live in reciprocity with nature and not think of it as something to extract. These are unique creatures that make up our natural world.”

As Gillingwater and I slosh our way into the marsh, he tells me to watch for water and garter snakes, and reminds me to check my body later with a mirror and light for deer ticks, as ticks in the area can carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. 

Baby spotted turtles on someone's palm.
No spotted turtles have been reported for at least 20 years at about 75 per cent of known locations in Ontario. Photo: Scott Gillingwater / Upper Thames River Conservation Authority

A member of Gillingwater’s research team meets us, carrying several spotted turtles in a pillowcase. We sit on a dry spot in some tall grasses and the scientists record each turtle’s sex, measurements, weight, markings, noticeable diseases, injuries, scars and whether or not their shells have already been notched so biologists can identify them again. I’m honoured to meet these turtles, which are, indeed, adorable. Each has its own look and attitude. One hides shyly in its shell, while another stretches out its neck and waves its arms and legs as if swimming in mid-air. 

Once Gillingwater and the other biologist have finished recording data on the turtles, they set them free. I hope this is how they will stay. 

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

If Canada wants to be an international biodiversity leader, it has to start at home

Rodrigo Estrada Patiño is program director at Greenpeace Canada. Stephen Hazell is president of Ecovision Law and was executive director of both Sierra Club Canada...

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