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Slow and Steady, Turtles Gain Ground

The Wildlife Conservation Society announced today progress in its effort to restore some of the world’s most endangered turtles , an effort that combines the creation of assurance colonies at its zoos with in-country field conservation work.
The announcement comes on World Turtle Day – a global celebration to bring attention to the plight of turtles and tortoises from around the planet.

Last year, WCS unveiled a strategy to save the 25 most endangered turtles through conservation work at its Zoos and Aquarium, Zoological Health Program, and Global Conservation Programs.

At the Bronx Zoo and Prospect Park Zoo, more than a dozen turtle and tortoise species from around the world are being raised in “assurance colonies” to ensure they do not go extinct.
Highlights include:

• Five Chinese yellow-headed box turtles were recently hatched at the Bronx Zoo. Classified as critically endangered, fewer than 150 remain in the wild.

• The Bronx Zoo currently maintains an assurance colony of seven Roti Island snake-necked turtles, a species that was discovered in 1994 and subsequently hunted to near-extinction. Only a few scattered individuals remain in the wild.

• The Bronx Zoo currently maintains a population of eight Sulawesi forest turtles, a species only found on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. It was described as a new turtle species in 1995. In the late 90's, two to three thousand turtles per year were collected by traffickers, with the result that by 1999, the population had collapsed. Fewer than 100 of the animals removed from the wild remain alive today.

Other threatened turtle species in assurance colonies at WCS’s zoos include: painted river terrapin, black-breasted leaf turtle, McCord’s box turtle, flower-backed box turtle, three-striped box turtle, Chinese big-headed turtle, Forsten’s tortoise, pancake tortoise, Asian brown tortoise, radiated tortoise, and Galapagos tortoise.

Jim Breheny, WCS Executive Vice President and Bronx Zoo Director, said: “A year ago, we made a commitment to saving the world’s most endangered turtles, and I’m happy to report on World Turtle Day that our assurance colonies are thriving. Zoos are uniquely equipped to help turtles and tortoises through captive breeding and husbandry, and we look forward to increasing these efforts in the coming years.”
Assurance colonies for additional species are being developed with partners that include Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Turtle Conservancy (TC), and the Asian Turtle Program (ATP).

Next spring, the Bronx Zoo will open an exhibit of Aldabra tortoises featuring a 600-pound adult male that is over 80 years old. These critically endangered tortoises are restricted to the Indian Ocean’s Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles.

In the field, WCS is working closely with the Myanmar Forest Department to raise colonies of critically endangered Burmese star tortoises and the Burmese roofed turtle. In Cambodia, WCS coordinates efforts with the government’s Fisheries Administration on the Southern River terrapin. WCS hopes to release juveniles of these species into the wild in the near future.
In addition to its efforts on terrestrial and freshwater turtles, WCS continues work on sea turtles in Nicaragua, Gabon, Sulawesi, Madagascar, and Belize. Recently, members of WCS’s Zoological Health Program traveled to Belize to join the WCS Belize Program staff, Belize Fisheries Department, and the WCS Marine Program to add a health assessment component to the annual sea turtle monitoring program at Glover’s Reef. Further, WCS’s clinical veterinarians have been working closely with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate the health of endangered bog turtles in the eastern United States.

Dr. Elizabeth Bennett, WCS Vice President of Species Conservation, said: “Turtles need all the help they can get, with many species being nearly hunted out of existence. WCS continues its work with global partners to help endangered turtles. While there is clearly much more to be done, our efforts show that we can turn the tide of the turtle crisis.”

More than half of the world’s approximately 330 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises are threatened with extinction due to illegal trade and habitat loss. Most of the world’s turtle trade is driven by demand from China, specifically for human consumption, traditional medicines, and the pet trade.

Scott Smith | Newswise
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