Baby Photos of 10 of the World’s Rarest Turtles from the Zoo Trying to Save Them

Radiated Tortoise Hatchling (Astrochelys radiata). Madagascar’s radiated tortoises have all but disappeared from their island home due to habitat loss, hunting for their meat, and collection for the pet trade. The females lay from three to 12 eggs that resemble ping pong balls. The hatchlings have beautiful, roundish shells, and at 1½ inches, are miniature versions of their 35 pound parents. Photo © Julie Larsen Maher / WCS.

By Avishai Shuter, Don Boyer, and Julie Larsen Maher
Photos by Julie Larsen Maher

February 19, 2018

[This blog was originally published at Mongabay.]

Everyone loves turtles.

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.

Chinese Big-headed Turtle (Platysternon megacephalum shiui). Chinese big-headed turtles are native to China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. The species is classified as Endangered. Their population is declining due to trade demand across its Asian range countries. Photo © Julie Larsen Maher / WCS.
Chinese Yellow-headed Box Turtle Hatchling (Cuora aurocapitata). Chinese yellow-headed box turtles were once plentiful in the highlands of the Anhui Province of eastern China. Their population collapsed due to human consumption, use in traditional medicines, pollution, habitat loss, and the pet trade. When these turtles hatch, they are tiny, weighing about 10 grams. Their Latin species name, aurocapitata, literally means, “golden head” (“aurum”=”gold,” “capitatus”= “having a head”). Photo © Julie Larsen Maher / WCS.
Sulawesi Forest Turtle (Leucocephalon yuwonoi). Sulawesi forest turtles are from Indonesia and critically endangered. Trade in East Asia markets has decimated their population. These turtles live on forest floors near shallow streams and bodies of water, where they eat vegetation, arthropods, and other small animals. Photo © Julie Larsen Maher / WCS.
McCord’s Box Turtle (Cuora mccordi). McCord’s box turtles are critically endangered due to over-collection and use in traditional Chinese medicines. Scientists still aren’t sure exactly where these turtles live in the wild, as the species was first described in 1988 from animals found in Asian markets. Photo © Julie Larsen Maher / WCS.
Golden Coin Turtle (Cuora trifasciata). Native to Asia, golden coin turtles have been nearly hunted out of existence. Unsustainable hunting and their use in traditional medicine have depleted their numbers in the wild. They are very closely related to Chinese yellow-headed box turtles, and are threatened for similar reasons. Photo © Julie Larsen Maher / WCS.
Mary River Turtle (Elusor macrurus). Mary River turtles are endangered, short-necked turtles with a remarkable adaptation. They perform “cloacal breathing.” In most species, the cloaca is the posterior opening that serves as the only orifice for waste and reproduction. However, as a result of gill-like structures, the Mary River turtle can actually breathe through their cloacas by extracting oxygen out of water. Photo © Julie Larsen Maher / WCS.
Black-breasted Leaf Turtle (Geoemyda spengleri). Black-breasted leaf turtles are a small, Southeast Asian species with a flat-looking carapace that disguises individuals as dead leaves. They are endangered due to over-collection for the pet trade. Photo © Julie Larsen Maher / WCS.
Roti Island Snake-necked Turtle (Chelodina mccordi). Roti Island snake-necked turtles live in the swamps and lakes of the tiny island of Rote in Indonesia. They have long, snake-like necks that fold sideways rather than straight back when they pull into their shells. These turtles have been over-collected for the pet trade, and suffer from habitat loss. They are critically endangered and haven’t been seen in the wild since 2004. They are considered by experts to be functionally extinct and are likely extinct in the wild. Photo © Julie Larsen Maher / WCS.

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.

Wild View Turtle Posts

Wildlife Conservation Society’s photo blog, Wild View, has more information and posts on turtles and tortoises.

Originally published at

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store