Keeping an Eye on the Elusive Matamata Turtle
Government of Peru’s Proposal to Protect the Matamata Accepted at CITES CoP19
By Yovana Murillo | November 22, 2022
Many conservationists who work to protect matamata freshwater turtles found in the Amazon have never even seen one in the wild. There are two species of matamata turtles, and both are good at camouflaging themselves in streams, rivers and lakes; they look like leaves deposited at the bottom of muddy bodies of water. As they are not good swimmers, they walk the beds of the murky shallow waters where they live.
While many of us have not seen them in the wild, we are keeping a close eye on them using science and policy expertise to ensure they don’t become further endangered or even go extinct, before our eyes, due to over-exploitation
Like many turtle species, which are considered one of the most endangered groups of vertebrates in the world, both matamata species, Chelus fimbriata and Chelus orinocensis, found in several Amazon countries, are facing a severe blow to their populations as they are prized by pet traders. The matamata’s strange appearance is exactly why pet dealers and collectors gravitate toward them. They have a shell, which is rough and knobby, and a long flat neck with bumps and ridges and a mouth with a snorkel-like snout.
This unusual-looking species is legally and illegally traded. According to SERFOR, Peru’s wildlife and forest national authority, China is the main importer with 64.7 percent or about 39,000 individual animals imported from Peru between 2010 and 2020, followed by the United States, the second biggest importer, with 23 percent or more than 14,000 animals.
Peru is the only country with legal trade of the matamata, yet confiscation of illegally traded matamata are rising; in Colombia and Brazil, where the trade of matamata is illegal, confiscations are also increasing.
While we don’t know the actual number left in the wild of matamata, due to difficulties in surveying the population, the confiscation numbers clearly tell us we need to fight to protect these turtles.
That’s why WCS and dozens of other organizations supported the Government of Peru’s efforts to unite countries around the world behind restrictions on the international commercial trade of the matamatas.
Peru proposed this tightening of trade regulation at the 19th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES CoP19) taking place now in Panama from November 14–25. Peru’s proposal on matamata passed in committee and by the end of the conference this week we anticipate full adoption by Plenary.
The proposal places the matamata on Appendix II, which would allow international commercial trade only if proven sustainable and legal. This inclusion on CITES Appendix II will help ensure exports are legal and sustainable and will stimulate improved management.
In addition to the stricter trade regulation of matamata, for this genus to thrive, we are calling for further research on the conservation status of both species including genetics, biology, threats, trade, and management protocols; strengthening the mechanisms for the exchange of information and monitoring of regional and international confiscation cases that impact wildlife; and strengthening immediate actions upon detection of wildlife trafficking for control authorities and surveillance of legal trade. We believe inclusion on Appendix II will facilitate these actions.
The Wildlife Conservation Society is just one of many who are keeping a close eye on this species. As regional Counter Wildlife Trafficking manager for WCS’s Andes, Amazon and Orinoco Region, I work with Rosa Vento, a specialist of the species initiative in Peru, and German Forero, the WCS scientific director in Colombia.
Of the three of us, only German has been able to see a matamata turtle in the wild. However, as a team we will never take our eyes off efforts to ensure their survival.
Yovana Murillo is WCS Program Manager of Counter Wildlife Trafficking (CWT) for the Andes-Amazon & Orinoco Region.