Slow and Steady, Turtles Gain Ground

May 23, 2013

WCS has been working to save some of the most endangered turtles, an effort that combines the creation of assurance colonies at its zoos with in-country field conservation work.

With more than half of the world’s approximately 330 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises facing extinction, turtles need all the attention they can get. So today, on World Turtle Day, we recognize some of the most endangered species, and the ongoing efforts to save them.

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, experts are raising more than a dozen turtle and tortoise species from around the world in “assurance colonies” to ensure they do not go extinct.

Highlights include:
  • Five Chinese yellow-headed box turtles recently hatched at the Bronx Zoo. Classified as critically endangered, fewer than 150 remain in the wild.
  • The Bronx Zoo maintains an assurance colony of seven Roti Island snake-necked turtles, a species that was discovered in 1994 and subsequently hunted to near-extinction.
  • The Bronx Zoo maintains a population of eight Sulawesi forest turtles, found only on its namesake Indonesian island. In the late 90s, up to 3,000 turtles were collected by traffickers each year. By 1999, the population collapsed.
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).

In the field, WCS is working closely with the Myanmar Forest Department to raise colonies of critically endangered Burmese star tortoises and Burmese roofed turtles. In Cambodia, WCS coordinates efforts with the government’s Fisheries Administration to save the Southern River terrapin. We also continue work on sea turtles in Nicaragua, Gabon, Sulawesi, Madagascar, and Belize.

Illegal trade and habitat loss represent the main threats to freshwater turtles and tortoises. Most of the world’s turtle trade is driven by demand from China, specifically for human consumption, traditional medicines, and the pet trade. 

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