Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Need to Conserve Turtles

JCM Natural History Photography
The 327 species of turtles that remain on earth are heavily exploited for food (above are some Malaysian snail eating turtles being cooked in central Thailand) as well as having their numbers reduced due to environmental degradation.  The following story is from the Wall Street Journal


The Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo and other city zoos, committed this week to launch an effort to revive turtle and tortoise species on the verge of extinction—some with global populations in the single digits.

The vision is for freshwater turtles and tortoises bred in New York to repopulate habitats across the world. It harks back to the society's first notable victory, when it shipped 15 American bison from New York to Oklahoma to reside in the Great Plains more than a century ago.

Now, the New York-based society—a network of 4,000 zookeepers, scientists, field conservationists and veterinarians in 65 countries—is preparing to mobilize all of its branches for the turtle effort.

"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. "And the fact that we've got these zoos in New York where we can do this breeding."

The Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs several city zoos, is working to breed freshwater turtles and tortoises in New York in the hopes of repopulating global habitats. The McCord's Box Turtle, held by a zookeeper at the Bronx Zoo, is native to China.

Much remains to be decided, but one likely candidate is the Roti Island Snake-Necked Turtle, a freshwater species with a long neck that it wraps around its body for protection. The Bronx Zoo has three of the Frisbee-sized creatures, which are found almost exclusively on a small Indonesian island. Fewer than 100 are left in the wild, scientists said, as hunting for the pet trade and conversion of its native marshlands into rice fields has decimated the species.

The Bronx Zoo is looking to obtain more to build up a 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 humid native climates.

Don Boyer, the society's curator of herpetology, said it is too early to say just how many young turtles the zoos will have to produce. "This is a big job," he said.

The organization is committed to saving about half of the world's 25 most threatened turtle species but is still deciding which it is best equipped to aggressively breed in the coming years. Early estimates put the cost at about $200,000 per species.

It is also unclear when those species will be brought to the society's New York facilities—the Bronx Zoo, the New York Aquarium, the Central Park Zoo, the Prospect Park Zoo and the Queens Zoo.

For now, the Wildlife Conservation Society is breeding four endangered turtle species—the Burmese Star Tortoise, Burmese Roofed Turtle, Southern River Terrapin and Central American River Turtle species—in the Asian and Central American countries where they are native. It soon plans to begin acquiring rare turtles from other zoos in order to bolster its collection of 400 turtles from 59 species.

The effort will take years. And experts say they are running out of time.

Having thrived since the early days of the dinosaurs, turtles are now facing an unprecedented crisis that has gone largely unnoticed by the general public, conservationists say. Most of the threatened species have been reduced to fewer than 1,000.

"You can't be in our profession, you can't have our knowledge and expertise and not do something," said Jim Breheny, director of the Bronx Zoo. "We're ethically obligated to do something."

Some species may be 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 Softshell Turtle, native to China and Vietnam, is down to four.

While much turtle habitat is still intact, the animals have been hunted to the brink across the world. For the last two decades or so, turtles have been plucked by the ton out of the rivers, swamps, forests and fields of Southeast Asia, where most turtle species live.

Many are bagged and shipped off to feed a growing demand in China, where they are boiled in soups or ground into jelly believed to have medicinal qualities. Thought to be good luck, they are also sold as pets to a new Chinese middle class.

In 2000, 25 tons of turtles per week were being shipped from Sumatra to China, according to Dr. Bennett. By 2003, that dropped to seven tons since the island was running out of turtles. China began importing them from as far away as Brazil.

Leaders of the effort see reasons for hope, saying turtles are uniquely well-suited for a mass breeding program. Many turtles live even longer than humans—some have been known to live 160 years—and breed throughout their lives. Compared with other endangered species, like tigers or elephants, they are small and easy to care for.

"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," Mr. Breheny said. "And the flip side is if we don't start doing something now, we're going to lose some of these. If we don't act now, it's over."

1 comment:

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