A well-known scientist once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's tortoises all the way down!"Ask a typical zoo visitor to name an endangered group of animals - they will probably reply with big cats, elephant, rhinoceroses, or great apes. Some may suggest sharks, corals, whales, or - if they've been paying attention to the educational campaigns - amphibians. Few, however, would think of chelonians - the turtles and tortoises.
With their ancient lineage, key role in culture, and the seeming abundance of some species, it's hard to imagine a world with turtles. It's ironic, however, that these animals, so renown for their slowness, are now racing towards extinction.
Conservation in the wild has proven difficult for many tortoises and freshwater turtles. Not only are their habitats vanishing, but they are also suffering from heavy overexploitation. Turtles and tortoises are used in many traditional Asian medicines and cuisines. The rarer a species becomes, the more desirable it is for the pet trade; poachers and smugglers have channeled untold animals away from wild populations. For many chelonians, captive breeding is essential for survival of the species. The Chelonian Taxon Advisor Group of the AZA manages more species than any other TAG, but that still only makes a tiny dent in the number of endangered shelled reptiles.
In 2001, a new organization was founded to combat the threats that face turtles - the Turtle Survival Alliance. With a goal of zero turtle extinctions in the 21st century, it has initiated and supported field projects across four continents to study endangered turtles and tortoises and aid in their conservation. TSA personnel collect biological data on turtles in the wild, conduct population surveys, educate local people about the importance of turtles and tortoises, and provide care for confiscated animals.
Currently, TSA is working on its most ambitious goal - the establishment of its Turtle Survival Center in South Carolina. The TSC will be a secure research and breeding facility, propagating some of the world's most endangered turtles and tortoises. While TSA will continue its commitment to conservation in situ, for some species the wild is just not the safest place to be anymore. It's not a totally unique idea - off-exhibit facilities have been established by zoos in the past for captive breeding, most famous of all being the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, VA. Other facilities have been devoted to a single taxa, such as the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin. Large scale breeding of endangered turtles requires more space - and for some species privacy - than can be provided in a typical zoo reptile house. For many species, the TSC may prove a last hope for sanctuary in an increasingly dangerous world.
Many keepers, aquarists, and other wildlife professionals started off as kids who loved animals. For many of us - myself included - encounters with turtles were among our early, formative experiences with wildlife. It would be tragic if these ancient, plodding creatures faded away in our lifetime.