Turtles and tortoises are often depicted as tranquil creatures possessing wisdom and longevity. These reptiles are indeed ancient survivors with a fossil record dating back over 200 million years. But today, many species are in danger, with more than half of the world’s freshwater turtles and tortoises on the brink of extinction. While some of these species can still be found in small numbers in the wild, they are already “functionally extinct”.
Pollution, hunting, habitat destruction, and over-collection for the burgeoning international pet trade all contribute to the turtle and tortoise population declines we’re witnessing around the world. Much of the trade in chelonians is driven by demand from China, specifically for human consumption and use in traditional medicines. Building assurance colonies of endangered turtles and tortoises in zoos and other conservation organizations, together with fieldwork, can help to mitigate the causes and outcomes of this crisis.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has committed to help these animals in their time of need. Currently, WCS’s Bronx Zoo Department of Herpetology houses 12 of the 40 most endangered turtles and tortoises in the world. All of them are on IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.
The turtle and tortoise hatchlings pictured here, some about the size of quarter, are part of assurance colonies at the Bronx Zoo’s World of Reptiles. Nearly all of these species are reproduced according to recommendations from Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) programs. SSPs manage populations of species in AZA zoos and aquariums for genetic viability and demographic stability, in order to ensure that captive populations are healthy and could be safely reintroduced to the wild if needed.
Wild View Turtle Photo Contest
With more than half of the world’s freshwater turtles and tortoises on the brink, you can help raise awareness about the plight of these reptiles. Submit your best shots of turtles and tortoises to share with the world, a Patagonia backpack is the prize for the winner.
Don Boyer is Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo Curator of Reptiles. Avi Shuter is a Senior Keeper in the Bronx Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Julie Larsen Maher is WCS Staff Photographer.