updated 1/8/2008 4:42:29 PM ET 2008-01-08T21:42:29

An increasing demand for exotic freshwater turtles and tortoises in Southeast Asia has fueled a rampant illegal trade in Indonesia, according to a report released Tuesday.

Turtles are among the most popular species sold illegally in Asia — either as pets in places like Japan, or as cuisine in China and other parts of Asia.

TRAFFIC, a British-based international wildlife trade monitoring network, surveyed 20 pet markets in Indonesia's capital of Jakarta and found 48 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises for sale. It said the vast majority of them were illegally obtained.

Included were all six of Indonesia's fully protected freshwater turtles and five non-native species that are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, meaning all commercial trade is prohibited.

"The open trade in protected species indicates a lack of enforcement effort and blatant disregard for the law," says Chris Shepherd, a senior program officer of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia and lead author of the survey.

Tonny Soehartono, head of the biodiversity directorate at Indonesia's Forestry Ministry, acknowledged that the illegal trade in turtles remains a problem.

"We admit it happens and it is a fact," Soehartono said. "It is due to high demand and lack of resources to prevent it."

Soehartono said most Indonesians do not know that some turtle species are protected, or that there are quotas imposed on harvesting unprotected species. "It takes time and money to train officials, let alone to educate more than 200 million Indonesians to have a heightened awareness," he said.

Across Southeast Asia, pet markets have served for year as key transit points for illegal animal trade throughout the region and beyond. Many openly sell endangered and rare species of birds, reptiles and other animals. Behind closed doors, buyers can find everything from cuddly creatures to black bears, elephants and orangutans, which often end up in safari parks or circuses.

Some of the animals — like the Asian Brown tortoise and the Sulawesi tortoise — are caught in the Indonesian wilds, while others like the Indian Star tortoise are imported from dealers in other parts of Southeast Asia including Malaysia and Thailand, the report said.

To counter the illegal trade, TRAFFIC has urged the Indonesian government to reduce export quotas to zero and to better enforce existing laws on wildlife trade. The group has also called on the Indonesian Reptile and Amphibian Trade Association to punish members caught selling threatened and endangered turtle species.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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