Traveling the World for Turtles

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Brian holds a Podocnemis sextuberculata.

I am on another airplane, I believe somewhere over Venezuela. The plane seems full of excited Brazilians all eagerly awaiting our landing in Miami. The aisles are crowded with chattering friends and young couples with clasped hands whispering of their awaiting adventures. I’ve plugged my music into my noise-canceling headphones to escape my surroundings for a few fleeting moments. I hope to cocoon myself in my favorite music from my undergraduate days. I’m tired; no, I am near exhausted.

Brian traveled on this vessel on the Rio Trombetas in Brazil.

For the past two weeks I have traveled down the Amazon River, from the city of Manaus and up the Rio Trombetas, on a riverboat that motored no faster than a turn-of-the-century steam-powered paddle-wheeled boat. It was a long, hot journey that offered little sleep.

After I clear immigration in Miami, I’ll be overnighting in an airport hotel before traveling on to India. But this journey includes many more countries than just Brazil and India. Since taking a joint appointment with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Turtle Survival Alliance, I have been traveling the world to better prioritize our organizations’ conservation actions for freshwater turtle and tortoise conservation. With more than 40 percent of the roughly 300 species of chelonians being ranked by the IUCN )International Union for Conservation of Nature) as threatened, endangered, or critically endangered, we are faced with the urgent task of generating initiatives to ensure that no turtle species goes extinct on our watch.

Giant Amazonian river turtle

While I was in Brazil, I participated in the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group’s Red-listing workshop for all of South American chelonians. This workshop brought together the world’s experts on this region’s turtle and tortoise species to better rank how imperiled they are in respect to their historical population levels. Three species are now ranked as critically endangered: the giant Amazonian River turtle Podocnemis expansa, the Magdelana River turtle Podocnemis lewyana, and Hoge’s toadheaded turtle Phrynops hogei.

The latter two have limited distributions, but the giant Amazonian River turtle is broadly distributed across the entire Amazonian River Basin. In the 1800s, William Bates described parts of the Amazon River being so choked with this species that boat travel was extremely difficult, and nesting aggregations numbered in the tens of thousands. But populations such as these no longer exist. Even in the protected area of the Rio Trombetas, less than a few hundred nest each year. Sadly, human overconsumption of these turtles is solely to blame for their decline.

Yet we have reasons to feel confident that we can restore populations of this species to near historic levels. The Brazilian government has launched an extensive program aimed at protecting nesting beaches and preventing poaching of this protected species. Currently, four out of seven populations being intensively managed are showing positive population growth!

Six-tubercled river turtle, Podocnemis sextuberculata

I hope to take what I have learned here in Brazil to the workshop that the San Diego Zoo and the Turtle Survival Alliance are sponsoring in Lucknow, India. This workshop is aimed at prioritizing the five most important areas within India for turtle conservation. San Diego Zoo has been an active participant in Indian turtle conservation since 2004, and it was the efforts of Don Boyer, the Zoo’s curator of herpetology, that first brought me to India in 2005. Five years later we are now expanding on what was once a small short-term, single-species conservation project to a nationwide initiative for conserving all of the 28 species of India’s turtles and tortoises (including two critically endangered species). I feel very strongly that my postdoctoral experience in India has played a crucial role in these new endeavors.

After India, I travel on to Bangladesh, Singapore, Cambodia, and Vietnam. But I’ll write more about those later. Right now I want to close my eyes, play my favorite Pearl Jam album, and drift into a sleep filled with dreams of a future with scores of giant river turtles once again nesting in mass on the sandbars around the world.

Brian Horne is a conservation research postdoctoral fellow with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, The Shirt Off My Back.