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Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, 2000, 1:18
© 2000 by Chelonian Research Foundation

Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter

Chelonian Relocation Projects and Heritage Collections

Ray Ashton and Ghislaine Guyot
Ashton Biodiversity Research & Preservation Institute, PMB 331, 5745 SW 75th St., Gainesville, FL 32608, USA
tel: 352 495-7449 Fax: 352-495-7433, E-mail: Tortfarm2@aol.com ghGUYOT@aol.com.

Relocation is a general term that covers the release of an animal in a location different from its original capture. This may include taking an animal from one spot (say the habitat is being destroyed) and releasing it immediately into another location in the wild. It also includes, wild animals that have been kept in captivity for some time before being released back into the wild. These may be short term captives (e.g. animals brought to a shelter or vet) or long term captives (e.g. animals from zoos or large collections that are being kept until the animals can be restocked).

A heritage collection is a collection that contains or produces animals that are fit for relocation in their natural habitat or other conservation goals. Fit meaning that “these animals are most likely to survive and reproduce.” In addition, heritage collections should be able to sustain populations of extremely endangered or rare species over generations in such a way that the natural biology, behavior and genetic viability of the population or species are maintained.

Why do we need standardized protocols to guide us in the development of heritage collections and relocation efforts? For some endangered species, the only hope for the near future may be through heritage collections. We believe, that if they are done properly, relocations may have excellent potential benefits for the survival of a species or population. In truth, we really don’t know. Even though there are millions of dollars being spent around the world on turtle and tortoise relocation projects, we have not produced any research on whether or not relocations actually work. Efforts need to be standardized so that all available knowledge is put to work on every project, thus saving money, time and energy.

There are many potential dangers to the animals with relocations. These fit into three major concerns: survivability of the relocated animal, introduction of “exotic” illnesses to the wild stock, and the proximate and ultimate effects on the behavior and survivability of the population which is receiving the introduced stock.

Unless great care is taken, most relocated animals do not survive. Many people feel that relocation is good for the individual animal and it will be “happy” in the wild. The fact is few animals survive. There are many reasons for this. Poor health, the wrong habitat, the wrong season are all obvious reasons why an animal might not survive, but what about less obvious reasons. For instance, did you know that if water turtles are kept in chlorinated water for just a few days, the entire flora in their digestive tract is nearly destroyed and apparently not recoverable. These bacteria are required for proper digestion and thus for survival.

Very serious diseases are spread from relocated tortoises to wild populations of the same and other species. Although it has not been proven, it is believed that Upper Respiratory Tract Disease, a fatal illness which has been at epidemic levels among desert and gopher tortoises, may have originated from captive collections.

How are we affecting local populations by introducing new animals? Some turtles and tortoises have complex social communities, reproduction and social systems which may be seriously disrupted by relocation projects, leading to poorer survivorship. In addition, how are we affecting the local population’s fitness when animals from a more distant gene pool are introduced? In all likelihood man has been moving some species around for many thousands of years (living lunch baskets).

In addition, there are social and economic concerns regarding relocations that must be addressed. How do the costs of relocation efforts compare to other methods of conservation (e.g. purchase of habitat which is sustaining healthy populations)? Pet turtles and tortoises are part of a growing multibillion dollar business. People love these animals. Over the past 50 years, we have also learned how to keep these animals alive, healthy and breeding for a long time. Our primary concern in the past was that people were taking animals out of the wild for the pet trade. Now, we are also worried about putting them back. For instance, red-eared sliders are now found around the world and frequently out-compete local turtle species for food. We need to learn how the pet trade can be part of the solution to long term conservation.

If we are going to be able to protect species, including relocated species, we must establish a reason for local communities to want to protect these animals over the long term. Therefore we must consider these issues when trying to successfully establish a relocation program. This may include such things as ranching, farming, tourism, and indirect economic impacts, not to mention such things as heritage and pride.

The Ashton Biodiversity Research & Preservation Institute (see p. 23) had been planning to hold a meeting this April to develope scientifically-based protocols for the establishment of heritage collections and the relocation of individuals. This initial “Round-Table” meeting has been postponed. It has been decided that at this stage the work should be conducted in smaller groups, by phone or internet. If a meeting is held, it will probably be in late summer or early fall of 2000.

The current plans are to develop seven different working groups or committees to address the following areas of importance to chelonian relocation, restocking, and reintroduction: diseases, genetics, ethics, environmental issues, socioeconomic considerations, intra-inter specific impacts, heritage collection. Each group will have 2 co-chairs who will be responsible for representing their group and co-ordinating the development of the manuscript in their area.

Each working group will be composed of experts who have volunteered (contact the organizers). The co-chairs will provide assignments according to expertise and need. Each group may meet in person or via phone, mail or Internet. Co-chairs will be in charge of the advance compilation of materials to create a first draft of the protocols for relocation.

Proposed Time Line. Jan 7:Identify co-chairs; Jan 24:Organizing committees established; Jan 30-Apr 30:draft protocols; May 10:Circulate drafts to co-chairs; May 30:Edited drafts returned to authoring co-chairs; July 1:Send out finished Draft for review by co-chairs; July 20:Submit Protocol to editors; July 30:Submitt Protocol for publication and translation to Spanish and French.

We would like to thank the organizations and individuals (a total of 12 at this date) who have committed money to the development of the Protocol and the institutions that have offered to assist with translations and to publish the Protocol on their web pages. Those who contribute $100 or more will be listed in the published protocol, while those who contribute $500 or more will be listed as co-sponsors.