Spring Desert Tortoise Translocation

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This tortoise set her sights on eating a cactus bloom immediately after being released.

The long-anticipated 2011 desert tortoise translocation was a success! We successfully translocated nearly 200 healthy desert tortoises to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-approved translocation site here in southern Nevada. The San Diego Zoo is the only organization approved by FWS to return desert tortoises to the desert; that’s because we put tortoises through a full battery of medical and behavioral tests for at least a year to ensure that they are completely healthy before they leave the facility. We fitted a total of 34 desert tortoises with radio transmitters before release, and now experienced telemetry technicians have been following the signal from these transmitters for two months now, tracking and studying the tortoises’ daily movements and habitat use. They have reported back to us that the tortoises are thriving in their new habitat!

The team evaluates the health of a wild desert tortoise.

While at the translocation site, seasonal research assistant Jeremy spotted a resident, a wild desert tortoise naturally living in the area. We cautiously approached her, something only permitted authorized biologists are legally allowed to do. We conducted a health evaluation, and after seeing that she was in great condition, we carefully placed a radio transmitter on her shell. The telemetry team will track her movements, observing any future interactions and behaviors with the newly translocated tortoises. It will also be important for us to compare her movements with those of the translocated tortoises so we will know when the translocated tortoises start acting like normal wild animals.

I can speak for the entire staff at the Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center when I say that releasing these once-captive pet desert tortoises into the wild is the most rewarding part of our jobs! Translocation is incredibly important to wild populations of desert tortoises, as these populations have reportedly declined by approximately 90 percent in the past 30 years; it is estimated that there are only about 150,000 wild Mojave desert tortoises remaining in critical habitat.

Our mission is to play a significant role in the recovery of the desert tortoise and its habitat. Through translocation, we are well on our way to fulfilling our mission!

Pamela Flores is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoises Step Closer to the Wild.