Green Roundup: Local biologist receives national prize to combat turtle trafficking

SAVE THE TURTLES: Local biologist JJ Apodaca says that without intervention, North Carolina could potentially lose species like the Eastern box turtle forever. Photo by Erin Adams, courtesy of the Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy

Conservation biologist JJ Apodaca and his locally based organization, Tangled Bank Conservation, recently received a $100,000 prize to further develop genetic sequencing techniques that will help save three of the most poached turtle species in the United States.

Apodaca, who is also the executive director of the Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy, was one of five applicants selected to receive the 2023 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Theodore Roosevelt Genius Prize. The TRGPs, established in 2019, are awarded yearly to applicants who “foster technology-driven solutions that can solve conservation challenges.”

Apodaca says that illegal turtle poaching and trafficking are increasing drastically, particularly in the Southeastern United States. He attributes this partially to a growing market for turtle parts in Asia.

“There is a heavy trade of turtle parts in many southeastern Asian countries. They use [turtles] in everything from food to using ground-up turtle shells for makeup foundations and other things we wouldn’t think about,” says Apodaca. “Because of that, many Asian countries have wiped out their native turtle populations, and so they come to the U.S. to try to fulfill that market.”

Additionally, Apodaca says the worldwide trend of keeping turtles as pets has been harmful to many turtle populations.

“It is really important for people to realize that most of the turtles that they see in pet stores are typically coming from the wild,” says Apodaca. “Collecting turtles from the wild is detrimental to native species. Having adult turtles in the wild is really important for populations to persist, especially given their slow reproduction.”

While law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service have increased efforts to confiscate illegally acquired turtles, releasing the turtles back into the wild still proves to be a challenge.

“Releasing turtles into the wild without knowing their place of origin can have harmful effects on the surrounding environment,” says Apodaca. “Because of that, confiscated turtles often just get euthanized, or in the best-case scenario, get put in a zoo. However, the harm to our native populations is still going on because those turtles are not reproducing in the wild.”

Apodaca says that the prize money will go toward developing a genomic database for three of the most poached turtle species in the U.S., including Eastern box turtles, alligator snapping turtles and Blanding’s turtles. With these databases, scientists will be able to match the DNA of seized turtles to their original habitats, making it possible to safely release them into the wild.

“If we want to be able to identify where poached turtles came from, we have to collect a bunch of samples in the wild, sequence those, and build the database so that we can trace it back to its native location,” Apodaca says.

Without intervention, Apodaca says, North Carolina could potentially lose species like the Eastern box turtle forever.

“This is an incredibly real threat that could lead to the Southeast and North Carolina not having wild turtles to interact with, which will not only be detrimental to our environment but also to our culture,” Apodaca says. “Protecting these species has to be a priority, especially if we want our children or our children’s children to be able to see turtles in the wild.”

Good to know

  • The West Asheville Garden Stroll is offering grants between $100 and $1,000 for gardening projects in West Asheville. The grants are intended to increase environmental awareness, encourage creative landscaping and contribute to the beautification of West Asheville’s public spaces. Proposed projects must be submitted by an individual living in West Asheville and be community-oriented. More information at
  • The Hendersonville Environmental Sustainability Board is seeking nominations for its second annual Hendersonville Sustainability Hero Award. The award is designed to honor an individual, city employee or team that is responsible for the development and implementation of sustainability practices in Hendersonville and the surrounding community. Nominations will remain open through Friday, March 1. More information at
  • Buncombe County’s Open Space Bond opened its first application window for passive recreation lands projects on Jan. 16. The bond will fund projects that provide passive recreational opportunities with minimal stress on a site’s resources. Some examples of passive recreation include hiking, nonmotorized biking, birding and photography. More information at
  • The Asheville Urban Forestry Commission has resumed in-person meetings. It meets the first Tuesday of every month at 1 p.m. in the first floor conference room of City Hall, 70 Court Plaza. The next regular meeting is at 1 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 6. More information at
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently invested $85 million in a new Industry Proving Grounds program at its National Center for Environmental Information in Asheville. The initiative is funded through the Inflation Reduction Act and will focus on promoting actionable climate information by engaging with three key industries: finance and reinsurance, retail, and engineering.

Save the Date

  • The 21st annual Business of Farming Conference, presented by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, will be held 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 24, at the A-B Tech Conference Center in Asheville. The conference will focus on the business side of farming, offering attendees financial, legal, operational and marketing tools to improve farm businesses and make professional connections. More information at
  • Asheville GreenWorks is hosting a presentation on pollinators at 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Swannanoa branch of the Buncombe County Library. This presentation is designed for adults and will educate participants on the process of pollination, the most common pollinators in Western North Carolina, as well as conservation concerns and efforts regarding native pollinators. More information at
  • The WNC Nature Center will host a Night at the Nature Center 6-8 p.m., Friday, Feb. 23. The event is designed for kids and will feature educational crafts and games revolving around nocturnal animals. Additionally, participants will have the opportunity to visit with several of the center’s nocturnal animals. More information at
  • The N.C. Tomato Growers Association is hosting its 56th annual Winter Vegetable Conference and Trade Show on Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 21-22, at the Crowne Plaza Resort. The event is the largest commercial vegetable grower event in the region and will feature an educational program led by extension specialists at N.C. State University. More information at



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About Chase Davis
Chase Davis is an Asheville-based reporter working for Mountain Xpress. He was born and raised in Georgia and holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from LaGrange College. Follow me @ChaseDavis0913

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