Photo: M.W. Klemens
A New Paradigm for Conservation

Michael W. Klemens, Conference Chair
Director, WCS Turtle Recovery Program
Director for Program Development, Wildlife Conservation Society

Wildlife Conservation Society, 185th and Southern Blvd., Bronx, NY 10460, USA

        In July 1993 an international conference, devoted to the current state of knowledge of the world’s turtles and tortoises and future efforts to conserve them, was held at the State University of New York at Purchase.  More than 200 conservation biologists, ecologists, land managers, zoo and museum professionals, and concerned individuals representing 25 nations gathered for this event.  Although the news reported at the conference was alarming—over 100 of the world’s 260+ species of tortoises and turtles were in need of some form of conservation attention, there was optimism.  This optimism was fueled in part by an expectation that the United States was prepared to assume a conservation leadership role in both domestic and international arenas.
        By the beginning of 1994 the realities of American politics began to erode that optimism.  High-level administrative shifts, a gridlocked Congress, and a bitter battle over the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act dashed the hopes of those who looked to Washington for environmental leadership.  It became apparent that a new paradigm for conservation is needed—one that places less reliance on “top-down” conservation and is more dependent upon grassroots support from the local communities that have the most to gain—or to lose—from conservation activities.

        Over 100 species of turtles are threatened with extinction unless exploitation and habitat loss are halted.  Certain groups have been hit especially hard and include our most vulnerable turtle species.  Both marine and river turtles are exploited; adults and eggs are harvested for food.  Sea turtles are threatened by loss in shrimp trawls, ocean pollution, ”subsistence” take for meat and eggs, harvest for tortoiseshell and leather, and by loss of their nesting beaches to development and beachfront replenishment and armoring.  River turtle nesting sites are also being lost as riverine habitat is degraded by dams, sand mining, and channelization.  Because marine and river turtles are the most economically important species, more attention has been focused on them, and such interventionist techniques as headstarting, ranching, and limited-harvest programs have been undertaken.
        The Testudinidae, or true tortoises, number over 40 species, typically characterized by a long reproductive life span, low egg production, and low juvenile survivorship.  Because their long reproductive life span is predicated on relative freedom from predation upon adults, tortoises are biologically ill-equipped to cope with the accelerated loss of adults caused by human activities.  Some of the most destructive of these include habitat conversion, development, or fragmentation; elevated predation levels from species commensal with humans; and overcollection for the wildlife trade, for which tortoises are among the most popular chelonian species.
        Many semi-aquatic turtles share the life history traits of tortoises (i.e., long reproductive life span, low egg output, and low juvenile survivorship) and also suffer from habitat degradation and loss and overcollection.  The wetland and riparian habitats of many species are inadequately protected.  Examples include wood, spotted, and bog turtles (Clemmys), Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea), and many of the tropical American and Asian batagurids (e.g., Rhinoclemmys, Pyxidea, Geoemyda, and Cuora).

Causes of Decline
        Loss and alteration of habitat is the major cause of turtle decline around the world.  Because many turtle species have complex habitat requirements and use a variety of different habitats, habitat fragmentation is particularly significant.  Blanding’s turtles often use a series of small wetlands over a season.  After hibernating in a marsh, they move early in the spring to vernal pools, which are warmer and contain abundant food in the form of tadpoles and salamander larvae.  As the vernal pools dry up, they shift to wooded swamps, and as the weather cools, they move back into more open, warm habitats before returning to the marsh to hibernate.  Spotted turtles may move onto land and burrow into leaves for several days or even weeks.  These complex patterns require the protection of habitat blocks, a mosaic of different wetland types with intact upland habitat adjoining them—a landscape complex that is not factored into most development plans.  Instead, when wetlands are afforded protection, they are protected individually, which fails to maintain the ecological continuity needed for many wetland-dependent species, including turtles.  Developed habitat is further compromised by the introduction of pet and feral animals such as dogs, cats, and rats; introduced plant species (such as purple loosestrife into bog and swamp habitat); and even by native species that flourish and increase in disturbed habitats (“subsidized species”), which include raccoons, crows, skunks, and the giant reed (Phragmites).
        Turtles and tortoises have been overharvested for food by local inhabitants, and increasingly by commercial hunters who transport them to urban centers.  The bulk of this harvest occurs in developing countries, but there are also active freshwater turtle “fisheries” in the southeastern United States.  Although the concept of sustainable management of species has been highly promoted, there are many, including myself, who question whether such long-lived animals as turtles and tortoises can be managed on a sustained-yield basis.  The wildlife trade is clearly a contributing factor in the decline of tortoises and many freshwater turtle species, but threats to turtles usually work in tandem: Habitat alteration or destruction is often followed by increased human pressures, which result in further destruction of the ecosystem.  Introduced species, subsidized predators, and commercial exploitation for food and the wildlife trade then follow.
        As epidemic outbreaks in wild populations have increased, disease has become a major issue in the management of turtles and tortoises.  The desert tortoise in southern California has already been decimated.  Many of these outbreaks are attributed to captives (that have contracted various diseases while in confinement) released into the wild where they rapidly infect free-ranging tortoises.  Pollution of marine habitats by chemicals and heavy metals may be responsible for depressed immune systems in sea turtles, resulting in increased outbreaks of fibropapilloma tumors.


        Conservation programs must be firmly rooted in “good science,” but good science alone is not sufficient to conserve turtles and tortoises.  Science and conservation must interact, and wildlife managers must access the appropriate scientific information necessary to develop sound recovery and management strategies.
        Unfortunately, interventionist management (including captive breeding, translocations, and headstarting) has been overemphasized—often to the exclusion of appropriate protection of both populations and habitat.  Headstarting is useful only when used in tandem with a strategy that will reduce the loss of adults.  Clearly, if turtles have become scarce because of overharvesting, throwing more hatchlings into the rivers and seas without curbing the exploitation of adults cannot be a successful strategy.  Yet, it is precisely these measures that have been and are still being used to “conserve” turtles.  Such measures have an intrinsic appeal to many institutional bureaucrats because they require a visible infrastructure (e.g., hatcheries), which serves as tangible “proof” that they are “doing conservation.”  Hatcheries produce fairly predictable and consistent results:  Eggs are gathered and incubated, and hatchlings are released, often as part of a well-publicized media opportunity.  And wildlife managers are gratified by the perception they have gained a hands-on control over nature.
        Addressing the loss of adult turtles, however, requires making hard, often politically unpopular choices, which have the potential to pit turtles against the perceived economic interests of the local community.  Such choices may include mitigating the impacts of proposed projects (such as developments, roads, and dams) or regulating turtle harvest.  While the conservation of turtles may require society to make hard decisions to protect wilderness and biodiversity, it need not result in controversy.  Substantial grassroots conservation can be accomplished at the local level.  Upper levels of government can provide the framework (e.g., designation of “Endangered” or “Threatened” species and technical assistance) to enable local communities to participate in conservation.  Some of the most effective conservation programs are now being created at the local level.
        I have increasingly chosen to work at the local level because the complex landscape-scale habitat demands of turtle conservation cannot be accommodated by legislation alone.  In New York, for example, many wetlands are protected by a 100-foot upland buffer, but this mandate focuses upon water quality, not biological diversity.  Species, such as Blanding’s turtle, which use wetlands on a rotational basis require habitat protection that extends beyond the regulatory scope.  Such protection can only be secured when landowners are convinced that it is in their own best interests to develop the land in a manner that will maintain the upland habitat that links small wetlands.  It is vital that these choices are seen as voluntary decisions, decisions that not only conserve wildlife, but benefit the local community’s economic well-being and quality of life.  The major difference between these “bottom-up” conservation strategies and the more traditional “top-down” approaches is that they are originated and supported locally, not imposed by federal, provincial, state, or even county governments.  For chelonians to benefit from such community-based conservation enterprises, it will require:

        Although turtle conservation has proceeded along a pathway different from what many who attended the Purchase conference may have anticipated, the gathering sparked a renewed interest in conserving these fascinating creatures.  It brought together a wide range of people concerned with chelonian conservation from many nations, creating a diverse coalition of interest groups and professions.  And from this diverse assemblage came the clear message that unlike “pure” research, the “applied research” needed to effect better conservation management requires an interdisciplinary approach. 
        Finally, the conference would not have been possible without the efforts of many individuals and organizations which are acknowledged elsewhere in this volume.  Furthermore, I would be remiss if I did not single out three individuals, who were the heart and soul of the conference—Kristin Berry, who encouraged me to pursue my vision of an interdisciplinary turtle summit with her contacts at the Bureau of Land Management, which led to the organization of the conference; Jim Van Abbema, whose dedication to the conference and to the subsequent production of the proceedings must be recognized by all of us—when promises of financial support to produce the proceedings evaporated, Jim forged ahead, determined to produce a volume worthy of the conference; and Suzanne Dohm, President of the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society, who recognized the importance of bringing together the “professional” and “non-professional” turtle conservation constituencies.  If we are to save the world’s turtles from the destructive impulses of our own species, we’d best begin to focus upon our shared concerns and values, rather than accentuating our points of difference.

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