Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, 2000, 3:23
© 2000 by Chelonian Research Foundation

Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter

Beyond Powdermill: New Grist for the Mill

Nancy N. FitzSimmons
Applied Ecology Research Group, University of Canberra, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia;

The first issue of this Newsletter featured two articles (Rhodin, 2000; Lovich et al., 2000) concerning the Powdermill IV International Conference held in August 1999. As stated on the website of the USGS Western Ecological Research Center, Powdermill is “the ultimate freshwater turtle conference” and that “over 60 of the finest freshwater turtle researchers on the planet were invited to participate in this important forum”. For those who were not invited, questions arise: what is the purpose and function of the Powdermill Conferences and are these aims best served by the present format? This commentary is an outsider’s view, meant to be constructive, and written with all due respect for the Powdermill participants.

Rhodin (2000) mentions the gradual evolution of the Powdermill Conferences from a small seminar-type gathering of freshwater turtle ecologists in 1980, to a somewhat broader collection of turtle specialists including some students, always by invitation only. At the fourth Conference “a recurrent theme” was the perceived need for more synergy between various turtle researchers and organizations and the need for partnering and working together through links with other organizations and individuals to help overcome the threats, both biological and organizational, faced by turtles all over the world” (Rhodin 2000). The accompanying press release (see Lovich et al., 2000) emphasized that a “turtle survival crisis” was uppermost on the minds of the participants.

Given these concerns, I submit that having a prestigious international conference (Lovich et al., 2000) by invitation only is not the most productive approach towards addressing the needs stated above. In terms of its international profile, only two participants listed addresses as outside of North America and no one from SE Asia was listed as attending. Despite the recognition that the conservation plight of freshwater turtles in SE Asia is particularly dire. It appears the time is right for some punctuated evolution in Powdermill, to create a ‘powderkeg’ of explosive interest, a radiation of diversity and an increased professional effectiveness. The Powdermill forum for exchange of ideas can evolve into something more inclusive and thus ultimately more effective in advancing the understanding and conservation of turtles.

Certainly the Powdermill Conferences have served a vital function in exchanging ideas, building networks, and giving an identity to freshwater turtle biologists. Nevertheless, the continuation of an invitation-only event encourages an elitism we can no longer afford given that the situation for freshwater turtles requires urgent attention and cooperation. We need the broadest sharing of interests in addressing all aspects of turtle biology and conservation for this group of species that faces the greatest survival threat of any vertebrate taxon (Behler, 2000).

How to change? We can encourage the Powdermill participants to demonstrate their leadership and foresight by reinventing Powdermill V, as planned for 2002 in Brazil, as an annual or biennial symposia (with published abstracts) open to all who wish to participate. Establish the Powdermill group as the agents of change and the creators of an important, and no doubt, long-lasting run of symposia. It would be an excellent start, showing a real commitment for international exchange and cooperation.

Several conferences have demonstrated the growing interest in international conferences on non-marine turtles. As examples, take the 1993 International Conference on Conservation, Restoration, and Management of Tortoises and Turtles in New York, the 1995 International Congress of Chelonian Conservation in Gonfaron, France, the 1998 International Conference on Turtles and Tortoises in California, and the 2001 International Congress on the genus Testudo in Hyeres, France. What is now needed is an internationally recognized group to take the lead in coordinating these various efforts to bring together turtle researchers and organizations throughout the world in the form of an annual or biennial symposium.

It appears the time is right for change. Are we in the midst of a turtle survival crisis? Would the advancement of turtle biology and conservation benefit from a regular series of international symposia that are open to all? There is no question that there is a need for new interdisciplinary perspectives. Would our shared aims and concerns for turtles be better served by a more representative exchange of intellect and enthusiasm? Will Powdermill take the lead on this and truly provide “the ultimate freshwater turtle conference” from an international perspective?

Literature Cited
Behler, J. 2000. Letter from the IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. TTN 1:4-5.
Lovich, J.E., Mittermeier, R.A., Pritchard, P.C.H., Rhodin A.G.J., and Gibbons, J.W. 2000. Powdermill Conference: Trouble for the world’s turtles. TTN 1:16-17.
Rhodin, A.G.J. 2000. Powdermill IV: International Freshwater Turtle Conference. TTN 1:15.