IUCN recently announced turtles and tortoise to be the most critically endangered invertebrates of the world. While all over the globe these marine and terrestrial species and struggling for survival there is a protected paradise in the foothills of Los Padres National Forest called Behler Chelonian Center of the nonprofit Turtle Conservancy. The center is in the news now for flowing down eight ploughshare tortoises from Honk Kong hoping to increase this rare creature’s population.
Turtle Conservancy’s Behler Chelonian Center is at a secret location in the Los Padres National forest. It is perhaps the only place in the world where many rare turtles and tortoise safely exist away from the harms of habitat destruction and poachers.
In paddocks and aquariums protected by surveillance cameras and electric wire there are exotic species like the Okinawa leaf turtles feeding on mulberries and silkworms in a temperature controlled green-house. Nest-building Burmese black mountain tortoises enjoy in their home made of piles of freshly cut oak, sycamore and bamboo while forest-dwelling impressed tortoises get organically grown oyster mushrooms. Philippine pond turtles spend the night in snug tunnels made of cork bark.
The new residents of this community are soon to be eight ploughshare tortoises being flown down from Honk Kong. What is added good news for the team is that this includes a female tortoise of breeding age, that can possibly mate with the only male ploughshare tortoise of breeding age in North America.
Eric Goode of the center says, “That male, which is en route from a zoo in Texas, hasn’t seen a female ploughshare tortoise of breeding age in more than 25 years. We’re hoping for the best. These creatures have seen nothing but bad luck, corruption and greed in captivity.”
The ploughshare tortoise is the rarest tortoise on earth with only 300 or less surviving in the wild. This surely adds to the significance of the effort that is being put by Goode and his team.
According to conservationists these highly domed tortoise are always a target of animal traffickers and fetch thousands of dollars in the Asian black market.
Unfortunately, these tortoises have not bred outside of Madagascar. In the early 1980s, a male died shortly after zoo workers in Honolulu used an electric device to procure semen from the animal. A female that it was supposed to have mated with had her ovaries removed during a botched operation.
“Given their plight and scarcity, it took more than a decade of hard work by us, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and Hong Kong authorities and conservationists to get these eight tortoises into our compound,” said Paul Gibbons, managing director of the Behler Chelonian Center. “But, then, a lot of the animals in our pens have similar stories to tell.”
The center is so cautious about the safety of these animals that even with a license from the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn they are not open to public in fear that the animals will be vulnerable to trafficking.
“International animal trafficking is a dark and dangerous subculture,” Goode said. “Certain dealers will go to great extents to get their hands on these animals. That is why, although we are certified by the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn., we are not open to the public.”
The conservation center was established in 2005 with 250 turtles transferred from Bronx Zoo, to the Saint Catherines Island off the coast of Georgia. But the center does not have a name board indicating its presence in the forest nor a listed phone number.
“Theft is a reality,” Goode said. “The only visitors are turtle biologists from around the world.”
Their main purpose is to maintain “assurance colonies” of threatened and endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles. They have today a number of species seized from animal traffickers.
Besides their own facility they also lend turtles and tortoise to zoos and help other conservationists. In recent past they have worked with biologists in the United States and Mexico to revive bolson tortoise populations in the hot and thorny Chihuahuan Desert south of the Rio Grande Valley.
“We specialize in creating environments that are peaceful and natural as possible for our turtles,” Goode said.
The ploughshare tortoise therefore just might have a chance to increase its number in this safe haven.