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Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, 2000, 5:11-14
© 2000 by Chelonian Research Foundation

Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter

IUCN Asian Turtle Workshop: Developing Conservation Strategies through Captive Management and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA)

Rick Hudson1 and Kurt Buhlmann2
1Fort Worth Zoo, 1989 Colonial Parkway, Fort Worth, TX 76110;
phone: 817-759-7177; E-mail: iguanhudso@aol.com
2Conservation International, 1919 M Street, Suite 600, Washington, DC;
phone: 202-912-1352 and 803-725-5293; E-mail: k.buhlmann@conservation.org

At this point in time, there are few sectors of the conservation and herpetological communities that are unaware of the extinction crisis facing Asian freshwater turtles and tortoises. The documentation of unsustainable commercial exploitation of chelonians for the food and traditional medicine is convincing and undeniably real. Feelings of hopelessness have at times been nearly overwhelming, as even the combined education and enforcement efforts seem not enough to prevent the extinctions of turtle species in the wild in Asia.

In response to this crisis, a conservation planning workshop for Asian turtles was held in Fort Worth, Texas, from 26 – 28 January 2001 under the auspices of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The IUCN Asian Turtle Workshop: Developing Conservation Strategies Through Captive Management was organized and hosted by the Fort Worth Zoo, and conducted by the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG) in conjunction with the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group (TFWTSG). Major funding support was received from the following organizations: Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Conservation International, Zoo Atlanta, Chelonian Research Foundation, Fort Worth Zoo, Wildlife Conservation Society, The Tortoise Reserve, and the Chelonian Advisory Group of the American Zoo & Aquarium Association (AZA). This workshop brought together nearly 80 participants from eleven countries representing a wide range of disciplines including wildlife and range country biologists, conservationists, zoo managers, private hobbyists, academics, commercial interests, veterinarians and governmental authorities. The primary goal of this workshop was to develop a global comprehensive captive management strategy for the most endangered Asian chelonians.

Workshop participants divided themselves among nine Working Groups that dealt with the following topics: Captive Holdings, Population Management Plans, Systematics, Veterinary and Husbandry Issues, Facilities, Regulatory Constraints, Information, Linkages with Range Country Programs, and Founder Acquisition. The group dynamics were challenging as would be expected with an assemblage of such diverse and often conflicting goals. However, emerging from this process was a spirit of cooperation that pervaded the workshop and led to an Organizational Working Group composed of representatives from each of the major sectors represented. These sectors included NGOs, commercial breeding operations, American Zoo Association/AZA, European Zoo Association/EAZA, Australian Zoo Association/ARAZPA, IUCN/SSC, legal interests, regulatory agencies in U.S. and China, range country programs, U.S. and European private breeders, veterinary community, university researchers and the public/corporate sector. From this Working Group an alliance was forged, and the Chelonian Captive Survival Alliance (CCSA) was formed. This group (renamed the Turtle Survival Alliance or (TSA) will function as a joint interdisciplinary working group of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle and Conservation Breeding Specialist Groups, and is defined as a Partnership Network for Sustainable Captive Management of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises.

The mission of the TSA is: to develop and maintain an inclusive, broad-based global network of collections of living tortoises and freshwater turtles with the primary goal of maintaining Chelonian species over the long term to provide maximum future options for the recovery of wild populations.

The TSA Steering Committee represents a diverse range of expertise and interest and is composed of the following:

Steering Committee Co-Chairs:
Kurt A. Buhlmann and Rick Hudson

Representation:
IUCN/SSC

Anders G.J. Rhodin- Chelonian Research Institute
Rick Hudson- Fort Worth Zoo

NGO

Kurt A. Buhlmann- Conservation International
John Behler- Wildlife Conservation Society

Zoo

Hugh Quinn- Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Henk Zwartepoorte- Rotterdam Zoo
Matt Vincent- Melbourne Zoo

Corporate

Lonnie McCaskell- Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Academic/University

John B. Iverson- Earlham College

Private Hobbyists

James Barzyk- USA
Harald Artner- Austria

Commercial

Al Weinberg- South Florida Reptile Exchange, Inc.

Regional NGO

Dave Lee- The Tortoise Reserve
Doug Hendrie- Turtle Conservation Project, Cuc Phuong
N.P., Vietnam

Range States

Peter Paul van Dijk- TRAFFIC Southeast Asia

Veterinary

Barbara Bonner- The Turtle Hospital

Advisors and Consultants:
Legal

Brett Stearns- Institute for Herpetological Research

Regulatory

Wan Zi Ming- CITES China

Records

Annabel Ross- Fort Worth Zoo

Communications

Darrell Senneke- Tortoise Trust USA

Capital Campaign

Walter Sedgwick


Implementing Solutions
Although the initial focus and organizing principal of the TSA was Asian turtle conservation, the TSA is designed to respond to turtle conservation issues worldwide, particularly when captive management becomes a necessary component in a species’ overall survival strategy. Recognizing the importance of establishing genetically diverse and viable populations of every species of highly threatened and heavily exploited chelonian in long-term captive or semi-wild conservation programs is the driving force behind the TSA.

Since the founding meeting in January 2001 a significant amount of progress has occurred towards advancing the mission and goals of the TSA. First, the Steering Committee convened in April in Chattanooga to draft a set of guidelines and procedures under which the TSA could operate. Levels of membership were defined, procurement ethics and importation guidelines written and the basic structure of the TSA was established. Aside from the 16 Steering Committee members, the TSA is composed of Partners that are individuals and institutions that are participating in the conservation breeding programs for the various species and agree to the general mission, goals and code of ethics of the TSA. Partners are those with a vested interest in these species and include private breeders, zoos, geneticists, veterinarians, range country program managers, field biologists and NGO centers. Space is the single most important challenge facing the TSA in establishing conservation-focused captive populations (‘Assurance Colonies’) of threatened turtles. The facilities needed to support such a massive undertaking far exceed those in zoos. Private and commercial turtle breeders’ facilities and government facilities (e.g., fish hatcheries) have much to offer in this respect, and will be major contributors to the success of the TSA. Much of the husbandry expertise is found in the private sector. The tremendous amount of talent, enthusiasm, expertise and energy that exists among private turtle breeders can be applied to international conservation through the TSA. Operating guidelines were drafted to be responsive to the needs of private and commercial breeders, and take into consideration the financial constraints under which many operate.

Half (forty-five) of the ninety species of Asian turtles are ranked by the IUCN Red List as either Endangered or Critically Endangered. Given that so many taxa will likely depend on captive management for their survival, and considering the spatial and thermal conditions that some of the large riverine and softshell species require, the establishment of captive populations becomes a mammoth undertaking. Saving them, in the words of John Behler (1997) will require nothing short of heroic intervention. Recognizing that existing facilities are not adequate to support sustainable populations, the TSA is looking to develop captive colonies in southern locales under semi-wild conditions. Federal and State fish hatcheries offer much potential in this regard, particularly in South Carolina and Georgia. Tropical fish farms in south Florida are also ideally suited for this purpose. Commercial turtle farms in Florida, Louisiana and Alabama also have potential. Thus, creative and unconventional solutions are being sought in order to meet this daunting challenge.

However, and perhaps foremost, the TSA will endeavor to foster, support and develop captive programs in range countries wherever possible. Establishing in situ captive colonies and headstarting programs will become visible reminders to citizens of these countries that turtles are part of their natural heritage and this becomes critical for garnering support and implementing future reintroduction plans. Perhaps such programs can provide benefit to the local communities through jobs and tourism. The Turtle Conservation Project at Cuc Phong National Park in Vietnam is exemplary in this regard and is a model program. Efforts to provide education to Asian student scholars through internship programs such as that undertaken by the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor NJ and New York Turtle and Tortoise Society (NYTTS) are vital to this mission and should be expanded.

Field survey and research is also needed. Several Asian turtle species are known only from food markets. How are we to plan for the return of populations to the wild if we know little about their natural history and distributions? Where are protected areas being established? Thus, building partnerships between the TSA and conservation organizations (e.g., CI and WCS) is critical. Likewise, observations and experimental studies of semi-wild and captive turtles are needed to refine TMGs (described below). The eventual repatriation of species to native ranges will require university research on relocation techniques that maximize survival and ensure site fidelity.

Taxon Management Groups (TMGs)
The functional units of the Turtle Survival Alliance are the Taxon Management Groups (TMGs). The primary goal for each specific TMG plan is to insure the long-term survival of that species in captivity and preserves future options for reintroduction. Each TMG is organized by a designated ‘point person’ who assumes responsibility for bringing together the participating TSA Partners who then draft a management plan for their particular species. At present, there are TMG point persons in both Europe and North America.

Each TMG plan establishes the target size of the population and the number of founders needed, states how many offspring will be set aside for conservation, identifies the genetic, husbandry, and veterinary concerns, determines who will maintain the turtles and where, and proposes an acquisition and disposition plan. Range country partners are identified. The Steering Committee then reviews each plan.

To facilitate the process, cross continent networks have been established and a ListServe provides a forum for gathering and sharing natural history and captive husbandry information. An extensive database of worldwide turtle holdings has been compiled by Annabel Ross of the Fort Worth Zoo and is available to TMG point persons as they develop their TMG plans. The database is growing with the TSA and is becoming a valuable tool.

Further, to help insure that these captive populations are representative of their wild counterparts, a team of geneticists from the University of California-Davis is working to screen some of the problematic forms in order to identify cryptic taxa and resolve taxonomic issues. This genetic component will be critically important to “ground truth” these captive colonies, particularly those founded with stock from unknown or disparate localities.

Currently TMGs are being organized for 17 taxa including 14 of the 18 Critically Endangered species plus the genus Manouria (3 taxa). The others are Batagur baska, Callagur borneoensis, Chelodina mccordi, Chitra chitra, Cuora aurocapitata, C. galbinifrons, C. mccordi, C. pani, C. trifasciata, C. zhoui, Geochelone platynota, Heosemys depressa, Leucocephalon yuwonoi, and Mauremys annamensis. TMGs for additional taxa will be designated in January 2002 when the TSA Steering Committee meets again in Austria. TMGs document the existence of captive populations as well as establish a cooperative management team to insure their survival. Working together under an IUCN umbrella is important as we work to attract the necessary resources to implement TMG plans. Fund-raising efforts by Kurt Buhlmann have paid off recently and financial commitments have been made to help TMGs develop some of the infrastructure needed.

Confiscations
The Assurance Colonies for many species will be stocked primarily through the confiscations of turtles that were destined for food markets in Asia. Confiscated turtles will be made available to TSA partners provided that those turtles become part of Assurance Colonies and are not subsequently sold or traded. Subsequently, some offspring may be sold or traded provided that the conservation goals of the TMG for that species are being met. In order to facilitate this process Kurt Buhlmann has been working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish procedures and guidelines for directing confiscations to TSA Partners. Kurt is also working with CITES authorities in Hong Kong to develop a mechanism for directing seized shipments of turtles to the TSA. To handle such confiscations an extensive network of TSA veterinarians with specialized facilities and training in turtle medicine has been established that will serve as our ‘front line’ in these situations.

Getting an international project of this magnitude and complexity off the ground has been a challenging undertaking and progress at times has seemed slow. Much time and effort has gone into promoting the TSA on a number of fronts and to a variety of audiences. Since April 2001 Buhlmann and Hudson have given presentations about the TSA at the following meetings: Conservation International (Washington DC, May), AZA Chelonian Advisory Group (Detroit, June), International Herpetological Symposium (Detroit, June), SSAR/HL (Indianapolis, July), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Washington DC, August), International Reptile Breeder’s Expo (Daytona, August), Gopher Tortoise Council (Gainesville, October), NYTTS/AMNH (New York, October), and Savannah River Ecology Lab (Aiken SC, November). An eight-page color brochure was published in August that describes the TSA and its mission and contains frequently asked questions about the organization and its operating guidelines. This includes a form that requests information from new applicants. In short, there has been an almost frenetic amount of energy devoted toward the promotion of the TSA and in trying to establish the network connections that will be essential to our long-term success.

The strength of the TSA lies in the diversity of its Partners. The TSA is an action based conservation alliance that seeks proactive solutions to the threats facing the world’s turtles and tortoises. A tremendous effort will be required to sustain this initiative and a genuine spirit of altruism based on a shared conservation ethic must develop if we are to be successful. We invite anyone that shares this spirit and passion for turtles to join our efforts. Contact either Kurt or Rick for more details.


Literature Cited
Behler, J.B. 1997. Troubled Times for Turtles. In Proceedings: Conserv., Restor., and Management of Tortoises and Turtles – An International Conference. Purchase, NY.