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Last night at a tiny town in the middle of nowhere in Cambodia (Chhaeb) I was invited to join my hosts at the guesthouse to drink beer and eat turtle meat.

In my travels I can only ever recall the concept of eating turtles as illegal or at least wrong for ecological reasons. I can't recall any place I've been where I've seen turtles eaten openly without at least travel guides recommending you not partake.

But even though I haven't seen it done before that doesn't mean that there's not plenty of species of turtles that are very common and not under threat. One hint they might not be common here was that my host told me it costs about USD $10 per kilo.

It was not a soft-shelled turtle and it was not particularly large. In my research I've learned that the former are farmed so OK and the giant turtles are endangered so not OK, but that's all I know.

(By the way I'm struggling a bit with the wording and finding the right tags. I'm not about to go on a crusade telling off locals for eating traditional food. I just want to know if it's something that shouldn't be encouraged for tourists to do for reasons of sustainability, etc.)

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    Turtles? eeeeew – Nean Der Thal Jan 29 '15 at 6:25
  • Did your hosts mentioned anything about how (un)common is to eat turtles? Sometimes our own culture makes us see something as inappropriate, but it is just common somewhere in the world. Traveling is all about getting to know other cultures and gastronomy definitely plays an important role in every culture. As a side note, did the turtles taste good? – gmauch Jan 29 '15 at 11:18
  • No they only mentioned the price and I didn't want to risk offending anybody offering me kind hospitality. – hippietrail Jan 29 '15 at 11:21
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    People eat turtles in America all the time. – easymoden00b Jan 29 '15 at 13:26
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    hippietrail, i've only made that comment in response to your second paragraph. Although I hardly believe the common snapper or many others in the bayou to be on the verge of extinction :) – easymoden00b Jan 30 '15 at 13:02
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Here's a recent article from the Phnom Penh Post:

Dealing in turtles is mostly illegal in Cambodia, where six of the 14 turtle species are endangered, some critically. The only legitimate options are to import them or buy from the single licensed farm. But a thriving trade that stretches from small provincial restaurants in Cambodia to Hong Kong fish markets makes them a valuable commodity and poaching abounds.

Earlier this month Wildlife Conservation Society, along with local authorities, rescued 23 turtles, many of which were either endangered or threatened, in Mondulkiri. “It is most likely that they were on the way to Vietnam, as they were taken only a few kilometres from the Vietnamese border,” said Alex Diment, senior technical coordinator for Wildlife Conservation Society.

Once on a farm, most of which are licensed and some with permission to breed rare species, poached animals can be “laundered” by mingling with their farmed counterparts. Then they are smuggled onward to markets in Hong Kong, mainland China and other parts of Asia-Pacific.

“They might be breeding a small number of [legal] animals, but it is not meeting the demand and accounting for all their sales,” said Tim McCormack, program coordinator at the Hanoi-based Asia Turtle Programme. The supply gap is bridged through poaching, he said.

“It is very difficult to regulate these farms because it is not easy to identify individual animals in the farm unless you have access to people who know the species [apart].”

For this reason, he argues, it is best not to consume any turtles. “You could argue that by simply providing an available source of turtles for consumption it gives the impression that it is okay to consume all turtle species,” he said.

Even the proliferation of commonly sold Asiatic soft shell turtles may threaten at least one endangered species, said Sun Yoeung, project leader of Conservation International. At his Mekong Turtle Conservation Centre in Kratie, Yoeung works with a monastery to rescue and release Cantor’s giant soft shell turtles, thought to have been extinct in Cambodia until a population was discovered in 2007.

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