This well-written book on “the world’s most valuable reptile” constitutes the most comprehensive discussion to date of the vegetarian marine turtle—Chelonia mydas. Parsons, professor of geography at the University of California, presents in five chapters the uses made of the turtle, a historical survey of the principal turtling grounds, the curious use of suckerfish in catching turtles, the status of conservation, the future of the green turtle, and the work of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation from the Tortuguera (Costa Rica) hatchery. The work is magnificently illustrated with 50-odd photographs, mainly by the Florida biologist Archie Carr who also wrote the foreword.
In addition to drawing on his own observations, which were stimulated by noting the role of turtling in the western Caribbean, Parsons apparently has surveyed most of the pertinent literature, and he has corresponded with numerous merchandisers, biologists, geographers, et al. An excellent bibliography of 246 items ranges from the first European reference to the green turtle (Cadamosto, 1456, in the Cape Verde Islands) to current works on the ecology and conservation of the species. Endleaf maps show: nesting beaches and feeding grounds over the warm seas of the world (front), and migration studies in the Caribbean in terms of tag recoveries from the Tortuguera rookery (back).
The historian will find of greatest interest the discussion of use and trade, and the historical survey of the principal turtling grounds to which nearly half of the book is devoted. Because of the nature of the literature and of current biological research, the Caribbean and Malayan areas are stressed. At first only a local food for natives in various tropical areas, the green turtle in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries became a staple for slaves and the poorer freemen in some tropical colonies, and it was of great utility to privateers, pirates, and other non-Spanish mariners in giving variety to their diet and serving as an antiscorbutic. Although it appears that the history of commercial turtling began in the Bermudas, where a conservation law was passed as early as 1620, the Cayman Islanders and the inhabitants of the Miskito Coast ultimately played the major role in catching the green turtle. Introduced to the gourmets of London before 1753, through turtles brought from Ascension Island and elsewhere, by the nineteenth century green-turtle soup and turtle flesh had become prized foods of British epicures and aidermen. Today, it is estimated that the equivalent of 15,000 to 20,000 turtles a year enter the commercial markets of North America and Europe, and turtle meat (fresh, frozen, salted, dried, pickled, canned, and in extract) is widely available.
Parsons, among many other things, brings out some interesting ethnic differences in attitudes towards the green turtle. By-and-large, most Malays, Amerindians, Buddhists of southeast Asia, and Muslims of Indonesia eat turtle eggs but do not kill the turtle; and most Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, Australians, Melanesians, Polynesians, Filipinos, Hindus, and Africans will kill the turtle and will eat both the flesh and the eggs.