It looks just like a restaurant kitchen: a sink brimming with water, a soup pot, woks hanging on the wall and a butcher knife stuck in a wooden block. But this is no kitchen – it's an exhibit at the ZSL London Zoo that has been specially designed to highlight the plight of the critically endangered Annam leaf turtle.

Annam Turtle Exhibit 2015 05 05
Image: Ben Tapley/ZSL 

The semi-aquatic turtle (Mauremys annamensis) has suffered dramatic declines in the wild as its natural marshland habitats in Vietnam have been ploughed over for rice production. But habitat loss is not the only threat the turtles face – considered a delicacy in Asia, the reptiles are also being driven to extinction by overharvesting to supply the restaurant trade. 

And that's why ZSL London Zoo's resident Annam leaf turtles find themselves swimming around in a pool that resembles a kitchen sink. "We’ve gone to town on the new Annam leaf turtle exhibit ... as we want our visitors to really understand the threats facing these animals," says team leader of the zoo's Reptile House, Ben Tapley.

Annam Leaf Turtle 2015 05 05
The Annam leaf turtle is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. Image: Ben Tapley/ZSL 

The Annam leaf turtle is just one of many freshwater turtles at risk. According to research led by the ZSL, about half of the estimated 280 species around the world are threatened with extinction. Their seafaring cousins are also in trouble: six of the planet's seven sea turtle species are classified as threatened or endangered.

“It has been estimated that more than ten million turtles are being traded for food, traditional medicine and the pet trade each year in Asia. Breeding programmes and zoo populations like ours here at ZSL London Zoo are becoming increasingly important in guaranteeing the existence of these animals for the future,” says Tapley.

By placing their reptilian residents in a deliberately jarring setting, rather than a replica of their natural habitat, zoo staff hope to drive home the importance of protecting turtles and the environments in which they live before it's too late. “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," Tapley adds.

Top header image: Ben Tapley/ZSL