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Saving Turtles and Tortoises from Extinction


Story at-a-glance -

  • The Behler Chelonian Center in Southern California is a captive breeding and management facility for the Turtle Conservancy. The center houses some of the world’s most endangered species of turtles and tortoises.
  • Turtles and tortoises in the wild are losing their habitats to pollution, dams, deforestation and agricultural expansion. They are also taken by poachers. When re-introducing these animals back into the wild, epidemic diseases are an important factor in determining whether a population can be self-sustaining.
  • Turtles and tortoises possess reproductive characteristics that make them especially vulnerable to extinction. Populations can be quickly decimated, and recovery can take decades.

By Dr. Becker

The Behler Chelonian Center (BCC) (“chelonian” = turtle) in Southern California is the captive breeding and management facility for the Turtle Conservancy. The BCC houses some of earth’s most endangered species of turtles and tortoises. (Generally speaking, turtles live in or near water and swim; tortoises live primarily in arid regions and walk on sandy ground.) Researchers, ecologists, filmmakers and students regularly visit the BCC to learn about and participate in turtle and tortoise conservation projects.

Turtles and Tortoises Are Losing Their Natural Habitats

The BCC is home to over 30 species of land-dwelling tortoises and freshwater turtles whose ancestors date back to the age of the dinosaurs. The focus of the center’s efforts, according to Dr. Paul Gibbons, managing director, is on “conservation breeding, providing husbandry that supports and maximizes good reproduction, ensuring future options for species that currently cannot be returned to the wild.”

Turtles in the wild are losing their freshwater habitats to pollution, dams, and other changes. Terrestrial habitats are disappearing in the wake of deforestation and agricultural expansion. In addition, turtles and their eggs are frequently gathered and used for food or for medicinal purposes, or taken as pets.

Since it’s impossible to guarantee the survival of many of these species in the wild, colonies like those at the BCC provide insurance against extinction as part of an overall conservation strategy.

Several species of turtles and tortoises have been successfully bred at the center, but currently they cannot be returned to their natural habitats.

Epidemic Disease Is Another Concern

According to Peter Paul van Dijk, PhD, who serves on the BCC Scientific Technical Advisory Committee and is co-chair of the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, a division of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature/Species Survival Commission:

“Over the last decades we’ve learned that some turtle and tortoise species can suffer epidemic diseases. We’ve seen ‘runny-nose-syndrome’ (upper respiratory tract disease) in desert tortoises, as well as a ranavirus outbreak in box turtles in the mid-Atlantic. So we’re being exceedingly careful about repatriating animals back into naïve wild populations. With that said, there is movement for Burmese star tortoises to go back to Myanmar, and a number of Annam pond turtles bred in Hong Kong have returned to Vietnam with the animals currently sitting in a holding facility awaiting the securing of their habitat.”

Disease presents a special challenge when attempting to reintroduce captive-bred animals back into the wild. The goal is to reintroduce a species that goes on to establish a self-sustaining population in its natural habitat. “There are numerous facets to how various diseases interact with populations,” says Dr. Gibbons.

“There are many different pressures that a given population experiences to help it to balance with its natural environment. Some of those pressures include parasitic organisms—i.e., bacteria, viruses, protozoa or helminths that help control populations in the wild.”

The question conservationists must consider is whether a disease will interfere with a population’s ability to be self-sustaining. It requires an understanding of all the potential infectious diseases and the affect they will have on a species’ ability to reestablish itself in its natural habitat.

‘Disfigurement’ May Help Conservation Efforts

There are only a few hundred ploughshare tortoises left in the wild, and the Turtle Conservancy is taking an interesting approach to saving them. The Conservancy is leading an effort to put a unique permanent mark on every remaining tortoise, hoping that such non-painful disfigurement will deter poaching and theft.

Turtles and Tortoises: Exceptionally Vulnerable

Many species of turtles and tortoises don’t begin their reproductive lives until they are 10 to 15 years old, and countless eggs and juveniles don’t survive. Fortunately, those that make it to adult size have good survival rates and long lives – often 50 to 100 years or more. Adults are able to reproduce throughout their lives, and in fact, the oldest individuals may actually be the most reproductively successful.

These characteristics make populations of turtles and tortoises uniquely vulnerable. When the adults are taken from the wild, for example for illicit trade purposes, the native populations decrease rapidly. It only takes a few years for a population to collapse, and decades to recover them to their former numbers. And that’s only when all other factors remain stable. If you add in pollution, accidental capture, or the decimation of natural habitats, it can take much, much longer to restore the population.

How You Can Get Involved

According to Dr. van Dijk:

“The key is for people around the world to be more aware of how unique turtles and tortoises are, how challenging their conservation is, and how privileged people are to share their life and environment with chelonian species. That’s something we take for granted. It’s just exceptional, something really special. The more awareness and the more understanding we have … the more progress we can make.”

For more information on turtle and tortoise conservancy, visit:

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