In a move meant to make manifest the real dangers turtles face in the wild today, the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) London Zoo unveiled their new Annam leaf turtle (Mauremys annamensis) exhibit last year. But to tell the raw story behind this turtle’s Critically Endangered status, ZSL bypassed the traditional bucolic exhibit depicting turtles in the lowland wetlands characteristic of Vietnam in lieu of a tell-tale tableau that reveals where they more frequently end up: in a traditional Vietnamese kitchen. The resulting still life of still-live turtles shows the stark realities of the wildlife trade, tapping into the grim fate these and other Asian turtles face from overhunting for meat, not to mention traditional medicine and the pet trade.
The ZSL’s all-too-real exhibit takes advantage of everything and the kitchen sink to bring this restaurant kitchen to life. The only thing more macabre than the axeman’s butchering knife, pendant woks, and bubbling soup pot are the kitchen sink itself and the butcher’s block doing double duty as aquarium and basking platform.
According to Ben Tapley, team leader of the Reptile House at ZSL London Zoo, “We’ve gone to town on the new Annam leaf turtle exhibit here at ZSL London Zoo, as we want our visitors to really understand the threats facing these animals. Providing a great habitat for these beautiful turtles, with water for them to swim in and a secluded nesting area hidden behind a carefully positioned wok, the creative exhibit tells a serious story.”
Knowing that Asian turtles like the Annam leaf turtle and Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), the world’s rarest freshwater turtle, are close to extinction, perhaps it’s time more zoological institutions explore this morbid mode of storytelling.