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China’s Turtle Conservation Hero Wins Prestigious International Award

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Professor Shi Haitao Honored for His Decades of Commitment to Preventing Turtle Extinction in Country at Epicenter of Asian Turtle Trade

For immediate release

September 5, 2019

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Turtles are among the most endangered groups of animals on the planet and are in the midst of what experts describe as a turtle extinction crisis. Nowhere has this crisis been more apparent than in China, the epicenter of the Asian turtle trade during the 1990s, which has since rapidly spread globally.

This year’s prestigious Behler Turtle Conservation Award, generally considered the “Nobel Prize” for turtle conservation and research, honors Professor Shi Haitao, China’s pre-eminent turtle ecologist and conservationist, who has passionately dedicated his career to studying China’s turtles and tortoises and preventing their extinction.

“Professor Shi has been a driving force for turtle conservation in China since the late 1990s and his efforts are effecting real change there,” said Anders Rhodin, co-chair of the Behler Award Committee. “He deserves the highest accolades and recognition for his accomplishments to date, and strengthened support for his efforts going forward.”

Shi, who is currently professor and vice-president of Hainan Normal University and vice-chairman of the Association for Science and Technology of Hainan Province, has an impressive resume with turtles always at the center of his efforts:

  • His early studies, which focused on the ecology of the central Asian tortoise in Xinjiang, helped pave the way for future scientists to study turtle ecology and conservation in China.
  • In 2003, Shi created an action plan for the conservation of turtles in China, including a plan to build capacity.
  • He published the Identification Manual for Turtle Conservation in China in Chinese in 2008 and in English in 2013 to help law enforcement prevent the illegal trade of turtles and tortoises and to educate the public.
  • He established the Biodiversity Museum of Hainan, which includes a section specifically devoted to tortoises and freshwater turtles, and founded the Eco-Environmental Education Center in Hainan Province, with more than 700,000 visitors to date.
  • He created the first turtle research team in China, which currently includes 50 members as staff, graduate and undergraduate students, who will become the main force in turtle research and conservation in China in the future—all inspired by his leadership.
  • For more than 25 years, he has helped government agencies identify individual turtles and tortoises that have been confiscated.
  • He led research to document the scope and enormous scale of turtle farming in China, and discovered that farms were intentionally producing hybrid turtles for the high-end pet trade.
  • He has been instrumental in ensuring that all Chinese turtle species are covered by appropriate levels of trade regulations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, as well as helping to revise China’s wildlife protection law, which was implemented in 2017.

“Professor Shi’s work and collaborations with conservationists from outside China were instrumental to proper understanding of the status and conservation needs of China’s tortoises and freshwater turtles,” said Peter Paul van Dijk, turtle conservation director at Global Wildlife Conservation. “Without him, we’d be making guesses about priority species and China’s trade patterns, and underestimate the significance of domestic conservation achievements.”

There are 36 known species of turtles in China, accounting for about 10 percent of the world’s turtles. About 30 percent of these species are found nowhere else in the world, and biologists are still uncovering new species. But turtle products are commonly sold for food, medicine or pets in China—a demand that became unsustainable and has resulted in the import of turtles from anywhere in the world they are available. Shi has not only led the charge against these practices, but is also responsible for helping expand turtle research and protection.

In his acceptance speech for the 14th annual Behler Turtle Conservation Award in August, Shi said that “although China has been a cause of the turtle extinction crisis, it is also part of the solution” and urged the global conservation community to work together to save turtles from extinction in the wild.

The Behler Turtle Conservation Award is presented jointly by the Turtle Survival Alliance, the IUCN SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, the Turtle Conservancy and the Turtle Conservation Fund, and is co-sponsored by Global Wildlife Conservation, Wildlife Conservation Society, and other private foundations and individuals. It annually awards global leadership and excellence in the fields of tortoise and freshwater turtle conservation and biology. The selection of honoree is made through a global nominations process and voting by a large and diverse Behler Award Committee. The award honors the memory of John L. Behler, previous chair of the IUCN SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group and curator of herpetology at the Bronx Zoo, Wildlife Conservation Society.

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Photo: Photo courtesy of Shi Haitao

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Global Wildlife Conservation

GWC conserves the diversity of life on Earth by safeguarding wildlands, protecting wildlife and supporting guardians. We maximize our impact through scientific research, biodiversity exploration, habitat conservation, protected area management, wildlife crime prevention, endangered species recovery, and conservation leadership cultivation. Learn more at


Lindsay Renick Mayer

Global Wildlife Conservation


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