Turtles and Tortoises Worldwide Headed for Disaster
As people take over more and more natural habitat throughout the world, many species of wildlife, including tortoises and turtles are being displaced. Many of these species are rare or endangered and the loss of these animals as land use changes occur, may prove disastrous. Releases into the wild or relocations sometimes are made by the owners of unwanted pet turtles and tortoises or by animals care facilities in lieu of euthanizing the pet turtles and tortoises. Such unplanned relocations of turtles and tortoises may well add insult to injury to wild chelonian populations. Apparently humane efforts by well-meaning persons or organizations to turn the animals back to their homes may spread disease, disrupt the genetics, and stress native populations causing more animals to die off. However, well-planned and organized relocations can be an important conservation tool.
World Authority Living in Florida Gives Keynote Address
The Key Note Address was given by international turtle expert and author Dr. Peter Pritchard who heads the Chelonian Institute located in Oviedo, Florida. The overall meeting was planned and chaired by herpetologist Ray Ashton, President of Ashton Biodiversity Research & Preservation Institute and series editor of the Rare and Endangered Biota of Florida. Scientists, zoo officials, conservation organizations, and others from around the world came together to develop procedures to help direct relocation and other efforts to save many of the endangered and threatened turtles and tortoises around the world. Topics such as ethics, spread of disease, genetics, environmental concerns, and management of habitat were discussed and the best management protocol was developed. The meeting was designed in a “Roundtable” format allowing participation and active discussion on topics such as “Chelonian Assurance Colonies” or, collections maintained by individuals, governments, zoos and others around the world to produce future stock of turtles that could be released back into their habitat in the future.
Development Crowds Out Tortoise Habitat in Florida
There are no easy answers regarding such problems as are found in Florida where the Gopher Tortoise is relatively common in its native uplands habitat. However these upland habitats are now the target of massive development for the rapidly growing human population in the state and tortoise populations are being destroyed. Meanwhile in areas such as state parks and other government owned refuges, the tortoises are dying of Upper Respiratory Tract Disease (URTD). This is a disease of tortoises and does not affect humans or other animals. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has been unsuccessful in trying to come up with solutions to these problems for many years.
Relocations can Spread Disease that Threatens Tortoise and Turtle Populations
The desert tortoise found in the western United States is having problems similar to those of the Gopher Tortoise, loss of habitat due to development and spreading of URTD. Relocations without following a protocol that tests for diseases can compound the problems. In France and other European countries many pet tortoises and turtles are being released for “humanitarian” reasons and these releases impact the natural environments and potentially spread disease to other turtles. Impacts to the environment can include: crowding out of native species when non-native turtles or tortoises are released or when groups of native chelonians from another location are placed into an already existing population, interrupting the natural food chain in a habitat, introduction of diseases, physical changes to the habitat by the actions of the introduced animal or by increased wastes produced by the un-natural increase in animals, etc.
Roundtable Consensus Demands Well-Planned Relocations
The consensus of expert opinions created by the Roundtable can be summarized by saying that relocation must be well planned and studied before it is attempted and that agencies must require thorough investigations into the potential impacts of relocations before they allow them to take place. Relocations should have a clear, measurable goal based on a strong conservation purpose that is centered on benefits for the species and the habitat where the relocation will take place. Landowners and communities should be involved and it is extremely important to monitor the impacts of the relocation after it has taken place to determine impacts.
Asian Chelonian Crisis due to Demand in China for Food and Medicinal Products
A major worldwide crisis has developed because of the recent surge in the demand for turtles and tortoises in the food and medicinal markets of China. Hundreds of thousands of turtles are imported into China daily for consumption and because certain species are prized over others (as attested to in recent articles on Chinese Olympians drinking turtle blood for strength and vitality) many have been recently added to the list of highly endangered species by CITES. Since the market for these is so great, local villagers can essentially double their annual income by seeking out and selling certain turtles in Southeast Asia. The International Roundtable, as a method to save some of these animals for the future, has created the Chelonian Assurance Colonies.
Chelonian Assurance Colonies Bank Turtle and Tortoise Species for the Future
Chelonian Assurance Colonies are actually many collections of live turtles and tortoises whose managers are cooperating with each other and the countries involved to maintain thousands of animals whose offspring may someday restock the wild once the current crises are over. This may take several human and turtle generations before conservation efforts come to grip with the real problems of habitat loss and over consumption. This effort is unique in that it brings together the traditional collections often found in zoos with those of private collectors and professional turtle and tortoise breeders who happen to be breeding these once common, now endangered species for the multi-billion dollar reptile pet trade. The Roundtable brought in some of the top veterinarians, geneticists and research biologists to layout the methods that must be used if these collections are to work for the preservation of chelonian species.
The work of the International Roundtable on Chelonian Relocation and Assurance Colonies will be published in a simple Protocol that will hopefully help governmental agencies, conservation organizations and others in the proper development of relocation efforts around the world. This book is expected to be available in 2001.