Endangered Turtles Get Help From Conservationists
April 12, 2012

Endangered Turtles Get Help From Conservationists

Several turtle and tortoise species that are on the verge of extinction are getting a second chance for survival with the help of the US Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which is committing all of its resources and expertise to take direct responsibility to save the planet´s most endangered Testudines.

The WCS said it will draw from its zoos and aquariums, its Global Health Program, and its Global Conservation Program, to ensure the continued survival of at least half of the species appearing in the agency´s 2011 report that lists the 25 most endangered turtles and tortoises -- both members of the order Testudines -- in the world.

The WCS effort will include breeding programs set up at its Bronx Zoo and intensive use of its field conservation programs to try to prevent the extinction of several turtle and tortoise species, according to a WCS report on Wednesday April 11.

The vision of the WCS is for freshwater turtles and tortoises bred in its New York zoos and aquariums to repopulate natural habitats around the world. The project is reminiscent of the society´s first ever successful mission, which shipped 15 American bison from New York to the Great Plains in 1907.

More than a hundred years later, the NY-based organization is preparing to take its biggest step ever in wildlife conservation. Its network of 4,000 zookeepers, scientists, field conservationists and veterinarians across 65 countries are readying to take on the Herculean effort of saving the world´s most endangered turtles, some of which only exist in singles of numbers.

“We´re in a position to do something about this because of the expertise across the organization,” said Dr. Elizabeth Bennett, the society´s vice president for species conservation.

“Only by garnering the vast knowledge and resources from across the whole of WCS can we successfully address the threats to the world's endangered turtles,” said Bennett.

WCS will work with government agencies in countries including Cambodia, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. The countries involved are all nations which already have turtle diversity associated with those in the WCS list of endangered turtle species.

“WCS is a leading organization in the development of comprehensive strategies that combine field and zoo conservation to save this major taxonomic group from an extinction crisis,” said WCS President, Steve Sanderson. “We have the expertise in our parks, in our health program, and in our global conservation field program to meet this challenge.”

WCS is currently breeding the Burmese Star Tortoise, Burmese Roofed Turtle, Southern River Terrapin and Central American River Turtle species in their native Asian and Central American countries, before bringing them to New York to continue the process.

The Bronx Zoo is looking to build up its turtle population with enough genetic diversity for safe breeding. Once in New York, the turtles would be raised and bred in temperature-controlled tanks that simulate their native climates.

It is still too early to say exactly how many young turtles the zoos will have to produce, Don Boyer, the WCS´s curator of herpetology, told Wall Street Journal reporter Will James. “This is a big job,” he added.

More than half of the world´s 330 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises are threatened with extinction due to illegal trade and habitat loss. Most of the world´s turtle trade is driven by demand from China, specifically for human consumption, traditional medicines, and the pet trade.

WSC is committed to saving about 10 to 12 of the most threatened turtle species, but is still debating which it is best equipped to aggressively breed in the coming years. It has been estimated that it will cost roughly $200,000 per species in conservation efforts.

It is also up to debate which species will go where and when they will arrive. Currently, the Bronx Zoo, New York Aquarium, Central Park Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo and the Queens Zoo, are participating in the conservation efforts.

The conservation effort is expected to take years. And experts are worried time is running out, and will run out before all turtles can be saved.

Some species, however, may prove impossible to save. The Abingdon Island Tortoise, once found on the Galápagos Islands, has one survivor, a male named Lonesome George. The Red River Giant Soft-shell Turtle, native to China and Vietnam, is down to four.

The WCS effort will focus mainly on the Burmese Star Tortoise, Burmese Roofed Turtle, Southern River Terrapin and Central American River Turtle species for now, which are the four most Critically Endangered species in their list.

It has plans to begin recovery of other species suited for breeding programs within the US in the coming years. Offspring produced through this effort will be quarantined at a secure facility at the Bronx Zoo, then transferred to holding facilities in their range countries in an initiation phase of re-introduction programs.

Assurance colonies for additional species will be developed across WCS´s zoos and aquarium. Species are currently being evaluated for that purpose.

Finally, WCS will establish a captive breeding and head-starting program for imperiled turtle species native to New York State. The Bronx Zoo will build off-exhibit outdoor enclosures for several species, including the spotted turtle, Eastern box turtle, and wood turtle. This head-starting program for New York´s imperiled native turtles will supplement remaining wild populations at a sustained rate.

“This has been the mission of the Wildlife Conservation Society from the very beginning, to bring its expertise for the achievement of one conservation goal: saving species from extinction,” said Jim Breheny, WCS Executive Vice President and Bronx Zoo Director. “More than a century ago, WCS led the way to save the American bison from extinction in North America by breeding animals at the Bronx Zoo and sending their offspring to wild places in the west. Now our zoos, zoological health program, and field conservationists plan to do the same for some of the world´s most endangered turtles.”

“WCS´s zoological health staff will ensure that turtles we breed at our zoos are in the best possible health prior to their release into the wild, and ensure that diseases are not introduced to wild populations during these release efforts,” added Dr. Paul Calle, WCS Chief Veterinarian. “WCS has more than a century of experience caring for reptiles at our zoos and we are confident we can help supplement wild populations with zoo-bred animals.”

WCS has continually worked with the support of many US government agencies. To help promote turtle conservation efforts, WCS is asking Congress to fully fund the US Fish and Wildlife Service´s ℠Wildlife Without Borders Program,´ whose Critically Endangered Animals Conservation Fund supports several freshwater turtle and tortoise conservation projects around the world.

“I really think that in a relatively short period of time -- five to 10 years -- we can really be in a much better place with turtles than we are now,” Breheny said. “And the flip side is if we don´t start doing something now, we´re going to lose some of these [turtles].”

“If we don´t act now, it´s over,” he warned.

You can show your support for the Wildlife Conservation Society´s turtle conservation program by telling your representatives in Congress that these turtles need help NOW. Please visit this web page to tell Congress to not to let these animals slip away forever.


Image Caption: Lonesome George, a Galápagos tortoise suspected to be the last surviving member of his subspecies. Credit: putneymark/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)