Spotted Turtles (Clemmys Guttata)
Credit: USFWS

By Tara Easter, Julia Trautmann, Meredith Gore, and Neil Carter.

Read the full paper here.

Conservation managers and policymakers are increasingly mobilizing to address the illegal trade in wildlife. However, how this issue is portrayed in the media for general audiences can profoundly influence public perceptions of the issue and shape conservation agendas. To that end, we investigated how news articles portrayed 54 cases of illegal turtle trading in the US that occurred between 1998 and 2021.

We first summarized all the existing information on these cases to get a sense of trends; which species were sought after, where were they obtained, and where were they sent? These cases widely varied in the scope and scale of illegal trading, from a dozen turtles illegally collected in a wildlife refuge, to several thousand turtles trafficked across the US and overseas. The cases also involved both common and rare species, such as red-eared sliders and spotted turtles, respectively, but box turtles were traded the most. In all, we estimated that at least 24,000 turtles native to North America were illegally traded in these cases.

We then examined the portrayal of these cases in news articles by analyzing how the media framed illegal trade drivers and impacts, and what should be done about it. Despite the variation in case characteristics, news articles mostly pointed to the high demand for turtles as pets in Asia as the main driver of illegal trade in the US. Similarly, offered solutions to tackle illegal trade focused on only two mitigation strategies: regulations and enforcement. This mirrors global discussions surrounding efforts to combat many forms of wildlife crime. However, our findings also suggest that stricter regulations and enforcement and harsher penalties may be considered illegitimate or unmerited. Without buy-in from the public, new rules may be undermined by a lack of compliance or cooperation from those participating in legal wildlife trade.

Our study suggests that for species with a history of legal, commercial trade such as turtles, the enforcement and regulation approach alone may be insufficient in preventing illegal exploitation. To adequately address something as complex as illegal wildlife trade, it is crucial to understand how public perceptions – revealed and reinforced through news media framing – may influence the direction and outcomes of conservation efforts.