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About Author: Brian Horne

Posts by Brian Horne

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Traveling the World for Turtles

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.

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The Shirt Off My Back

Master Wildlife Artist Carel Brest van Kempen's Browsing Radiated Tortoise.

Each year, a dedicated group of about 200 people from around the globe meets at the annual Turtle Survival Alliance* (TSA) conference. The three-day conference has become THE annual meeting for all those interested in conserving freshwater turtles and tortoises. In reality, this is a small conference; it is nothing at all like the giant spectacle that is COMICON (San Diego’s annual conference on all things fantasy and science fiction). Nevertheless, the TSA conference is the largest meeting of scientists, students, zoo-based biologists, and hobbyists who have a deep passion for turtles.

I eagerly await this conference each year. It is a time for me to see old friends, meet new, like-minded people, and become re-energized for another year in the “trenches,” our continual struggle to save the rarest of the rare turtles with very limited resources. Although there are approximately 300 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises in the world, the vast majority of conservation dollars go to save the seven marine species; hence, every penny we can raise at the conference for conservation action is incredibly important.

This brings me to my newest role as a conservation biologist—one that I never envisioned having: I have become the auctioneer at TSA’s annual charity auction. I’m not sure how this happened, perhaps when the conference organizers heard me say that I would sell the shirt off my back to make sure that there are zero turtle extinctions in my lifetime. I guess you need to be careful what you say around turtle biologists that are short on cash!

It is not an easy thing to “entertain” a crowded room of people all while trying to get them to pay exorbitant prices on turtle-themed items. Last year, by using a fair amount of self-deprecating humor, I was, for example, able to sell a turtle-print sarong for $125, a turtle-shaped woman’s purse for almost $200, and a fossil tortoise shell for $500. The whole auction was a lot of fun and a chance for me to be a bit of a stand-up comedian, all while raising over $10,000 for TSA’s field conservation programs.

This year I will reprise my role as auctioneer in the hopes of bringing in even more conservation dollars. TSA has been donated an original piece of incredible artwork depicting a radiated tortoise valued at well over $10,000 by Carel Brest van Kempen, a master painter of the Society of Animal Artists. This is a unique opportunity to own a true masterpiece. Funds raised from its auction will directly benefit future freshwater turtle and tortoise research and conservation efforts. For those of us who aren’t big spenders, there will be limited edition prints available through the Turtle Survival Alliance.

If you are interested in freshwater turtle and tortoise conservation, I strongly encourage you to attend TSA’s conference, being held in Orlando, Florida, from August 16 to 19, 2010. Details…

I’m already practicing my newest jokes and a new, catchy way of saying “SOLD!”

Brian Horne is a conservation research postdoctoral fellow with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Studying Tortoises in Madagascar.

*The San Diego Zoo has been contributing partner of the TSA since its inception, and the TSA has been an active partner in the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research’s conservation project on the red-crowned roof turtle in India.

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Studying Tortoises in Madagascar

Shortly after arriving in the small town of Beloha, word of our arrival spread quickly. Not many vazas, a Malagasy term for light-skinned foreigners, come to this area of Madagascar, especially ones studying tortoises. We definitely drew some curious stares, and in a manner of minutes we had offers to see tortoises.

Although there was a light rain and the week’s first cold Coca-cola was beckoning, I decided to accept the offer to see some tortoises. Sadly, the locals took me to the town’s trash dump to show me the remains of at least a dozen recently butchered radiated tortoises Astrochelys radiata. I had thought that perhaps I would see some pet tortoises or maybe a few juvenile animals for sale, but to see the adult carapaces of one of the world’s most strikingly beautiful tortoises mixed with the town’s refuge of broken baskets, old flip flops, and tattered clothing was a stark dichotomy of splendor and repulsion. Minutes later my first cold Coca-cola after a week of hot and dirty fieldwork didn’t taste so refreshing after all.

Poverty in the Spiny Forest of Southwest Madagascar is at a level that many westerners would have a hard time grasping. As the American Southwest faces its housing crisis related to failing mortgages, accelerated inflation of the price per gallon of gasoline, and spiraling healthcare costs; the people of Spiny Forest are spending a quarter of their daily wage on a two-gallon bucket of fresh water and may spend months eating only the fruits from the invasive prickly-pear cactus. The walls of their houses are built of the split stalk of an invasive agave plant (introduced as a source of fiber for rope making), and the roofs are made from its dried leaves. The only chance for a bath is when the roadside ditches fill with water once ever six months. Yet even in the face of this incredible poverty, most do not eat the area’s tortoises, as people of the Mahafaly tribe (the dominant tribe in the area) have a long-held belief that the tortoises are fady or taboo. Sadly, outsiders from a different tribe are now coming to the area to collect the tortoises for sale in major cities and to meet the demand for bushmeat fueled by international mining operations in southern Madagascar.

Once estimated to have populations in the millions, the Spiny Forest’s radiated tortoise is now absent from many of the areas where it was once incredibly common as recently as the mid-1990s. Even the national parks are not immune from poaching. One of the best remaining populations of the tortoise is in the Cap Sainte Marie National Park. However, this park is only 17 square kilometers (6.5 square miles) and has a handful of park guards that have no means of making daily patrols to deter poaching. The guards have not a single automobile or all-terrain vehicle; rather, they may occasionally hitch a ride on an oxcart. The only real protection the park has is that it is isolated and difficult to reach. This protection is fleeting, as once the population of tortoises outside the park is diminished, the poachers will eventually make their way to the park’s gates.

This is the situation that I, along with a team of international biologists from the Turtle Survival Alliance and the Wildlife Conservation Society, am tasked with. Somehow we must create new and innovative solutions for this tangled net of a conservation problem. We have to find ways to aid in the socioeconomic development of the region that will make the lives of the region’s people better and will also safeguard its tortoise populations; and, we have to do this while the nation is experiencing a transitional government!

The situation is not hopeless, but will require dedicated Malagasies ready to devote years to this dilemma. There are no easy answers. Law enforcement will not gain traction unless we have the support from the people living and working daily in the tortoise habitat.

We hope to initiate programs that will reduce the need for conversion of the remaining intact forest to agricultural areas and pastures for cattle. This indirect conservation action of reducing slash-and-burn farming practices will help slow the destruction of Madagascar’s most endangered landscape as well as build bridges to the communities that can best protect the tortoises. Simple yet eloquent programs of implementing fuel-efficient cooking stoves will help stem the wave of destruction of the forests related to charcoal production. Aiding in the construction of rainwater harvesting techniques will afford people the opportunity to water their crops in periods of drought. This multi-pronged approach will prevent the loss of core tortoise habitat as well as increase vigilance at the community level.

Policy level change at the highest levels of government must also be enacted so that park guards will have legal right to detain tortoise poachers. Perhaps a special task force that is well equipped to deal with armed poachers should be considered. Community-level actions are a great first defense, but rural farmers do not have the means to halt poachers armed with rifles nor can their oxcarts match the mobility of the poachers’ four-wheel drive trucks.

We have a difficult task ahead of us as we continue to dedicate ourselves to zero turtle extinctions. The radiated tortoise is an icon of southern Madagascar and one we must insure remains a keystone species in this incredibly unique ecosystem.

Brian Horne is a postdoctoral fellow for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post Turtle Conservation in India: Making Progress.

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Turtle Conservation in India: Making Progress

Brian photographs the placing of the education center's corner stone. The ceremony includes burning incense and giving candied buffalo-milk sweets to the Hindu gods.

Brian photographs the placing of the education center

A colleague of mine recently told me that my turtle conservation projects in Asia, specifically India, have little chance of long-term success and that they were foolishly impractical. That is, they believe that no matter how much my team achieves in the next few years, the turtles I try so hard to protect will eventually go extinct due to human actions. Their statement left me dumbfounded. I fear that my colleague has regressed to the mindset of a disheartened conservationist.

As conservationists, we often tell the tale of horrible environmental woes (for example, continuing deforestation of tropical rain forests, the cruelties of illegal wildlife trade, and feasible catastrophic climate changes) as a call to action, and perhaps if we are lucky, a bit of fund-raising as well. However, all too often we overly focus this message on the negative and fail to highlight the gains (both small and monumental) we have recently achieved in our struggles against the loss of biodiversity. This negativity has left many people greatly fatigued and despondent. So much so that many are “throwing in the towel” and are now glumly resigned to the misperception that our conservation efforts are merely postponing the inevitable mass extinction of countless plant and animal species.

I find this phenomenon eerily similar to a combination or, perhaps more aptly termed fusion, of two classic children’s stories: The Boy Who Cried Wolf and Chicken Little. We as conservationists have to be weary of continually “crying wolf” to the point that our message falls onto deaf ears. We also must be aware of how overly pessimistic claims that the “sky is falling” adversely influences the psyche of the general public.

Call me young and naïve, but I still think we can make a difference and that small actions today can have long-term positive conservation impacts.

I, as well as others, have worked hard over the past three years to develop numerous collaborations that will ensure continued project funding for the conservation of the red-crowned roof turtles in India well into the future. Nevertheless, the true measure of this project’s success will not only be self-sustaining populations of turtles within protected areas but also the legacy of the project’s capacity building. The project is currently funding the dissertation research of three Indian graduate students. Their projects range from turtle spatial ecology (the study of how the animals move within their habitats) to socio-economic surveys of the area’s impoverished people, who are dependent on utilizing natural resources in a manner that may be negatively impacting turtle populations.

The new education center becomes a reality.

The new education center becomes a reality.

In addition, we have recently broken ground on our new education center adjacent to our turtle nurseries. This education center, besides offering programs to thousands of young students, will serve as a center for training forest rangers in new techniques to protect and monitor wildlife more effectively. Furthermore, we are developing novel alternative livelihood options for reformed turtle poachers. By offering these poachers a legal and stable means of financially providing for their families, we are giving the red-crowned roof turtles the best opportunities for generations to come.

The combination of both the adolescent and the adult education programs ensures both short-term and long-term project success. I am confident that the red-crowned roof turtle conservation project is, and will continue to shape, the future of turtle conservation positively for years to come, and I hope that my colleagues will find inspiration and optimism in this project.

Brian Horne is a postdoctoral fellow for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

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India: Turtle School

Assam roofed-turtles

Assam roofed turtles

I’m waiting for a ride to the Guwahati Airport in Assam, India, for my flight back to Delhi. In front of me is the mighty Brahmaputra River. One of the largest rivers in the world at over 1,800 miles (2,880 kilometers) long, it is home to the greatest freshwater turtle and tortoise diversity in the world and hosts some of the most endangered and enigmatic turtle species. It has been a great venue for “3rd School of Herpetology,” sponsored by India’s Science and Engineering Council. This short, two-week course is offered to graduate students from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Each class is comprised of approximately 25 students who are studying a variety of different aspects of herpetology; including molecular, cellular, physiological, ecological, and evolutionary biology.

3rd School of Herpetology

3rd School of Herpetology

I, as well as other faculty members from across India and the U.S., gave lectures and laboratory practicals and participated in two short field trips. Our first field trip was to the Assam State Zoo and its botanical garden for some lessons in urban herpetology. This small sanctuary inside the city of Guwatahu offers many local students the chance to get hands-on experience without having to raise funds to travel to distance wildlife refuges.

The second field trip was an overnight visit to Kaziranga National Park, noted for having the greatest density of Indian rhinos in the world. I was taken aback by the beauty and abundance of wildlife in the park during our dawn elephant ride. With over 50 tigers, hundreds of wild water buffalo, as well as the rhinos, it isn’t safe to explore the park by foot.

Brian tries for the perfect photo!

Brian tries for the perfect photo!

After our all-too-short elephant ride, we took a Jeep safari in hopes of finding the endemic Assam roofed turtle Pangshura sylhetensisbasking in some of the backwaters of the park. I first saw a picture of this species over 20 years ago and have longed to see this endangered species in the wild. Luckily, we were able to spot groups of adults and juveniles basking on a fallen log protruding from the riverbank. I was smiling from ear to ear after a half hour of photographing the animals through my 400mm telephoto lens. I think the students got a real kick out of watching me snap photo after photo of the same group of turtles, in hopes of getting that one really great shot. I had previously been the butt of their jokes when I failed miserably at drawing on the white board during one of my lectures. They all hoped that my photography skills were going to be better than my drawing skills!

I’m now headed back to my field site in Uttar Pradesh along the Chambal River. I am hoping to see the hatching of the endangered Indian narrowheaded softshell turtle Chitra indica in nests we have been protecting from predators and poachers. These are real giants of the turtle world, bigger than some sea turtles and laying as many as 192 eggs in a single clutch. (You can see Chitra indica in the San Diego Zoo’s gharial exhibit). Since 2007, we have been protecting nests that we find along the Chambal and Ghaghra Rivers (see post India: Life on the Chambal). Last year we were able to hatch almost a thousand turtles!

It is time for me to catch my plane. After a short 3.5-hour flight, I’ll have a long drive from Delhi. It is going to be a long day but well worth it!

Brian Horne is a postdoctoral fellow for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, The Making of a Turtle Biologist.

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The Making of a Turtle Biologist

Brian with a very muddy spiny softshell turtle.

Brian with a very muddy spiny softshell turtle.

Why am I turtle biologist? I receive this question a lot! As a frequent traveler, I meet a lot of people, and I am always quick to strike up conversations. There is nothing I like to talk about more than to talk about turtles. Almost everyone I meet has a positive response when I say I study freshwater turtles and tortoises, but they all ask, “How did you ever find a career that lets you study turtles?”

I believe it started with my father. I vividly remember him pulling our yellow 1970 VW squareback to the side of the road to pick up a box turtle that was in danger of being crushed by an oncoming car. I remember the thrill of darting around the car to quickly grab the turtle! I think all those junior high gym class: “sprint to grab the chalk board eraser” drills may have come into play. When we arrived home, my father helped me build a small pen for the turtle out of some scrap 2 X 4s. I was instantly enthralled by this animal and its behaviors (or lack thereof). I would sit motionless for long stretches waiting for the turtle to peek out of its shell.

Yet the turtle never “warmed” to me, so I decided to let it go in a large wood lot close to where we had found it but far from the road. But I was hooked. I decided to read everything I could about box turtles. Sadly, there was not much information readily available in the early 1980s. However, I did find a copy of the Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of the Eastern United States by Roger Conant. This book became my constant companion and was where I learned that there were many different species of turtles in my native Virginia. By the time I was in high school, I had filled my parent’s basement with a menagerie of turtles from around the world.

After my freshman year in college, I decided to spend the summer in Costa Rica looking for Central American wood turtles, much to the dismay of my then girlfriend. She just could not believe that I would rather spend my summer trumping through rain forests in search of turtles than to spend the summer working at a local amusement park with her. Let’s just say that this was a no-brainer for a diehard turtle geek like me! I knew then and there that turtles were going to be the central focus of my life.

After working hard to finish college, I made it to graduate school by the skin of my teeth (my grades had never been very good as I was much more inclined to spend my time chasing pond turtles than studying for organic chemistry exams). Luckily, I was accepted into a masters program where I was to study the reproductive biology of the yellow-blotched map turtle (many consider this turtle to be the most endangered turtle in the U.S.). From there, I switched gears and headed back to the tropics to begin my doctoral research on the embryonic development of neotropical turtles. After five short years of fieldwork in Latin America and two years of writing, I had my doctorate.

So when people ask, I always say it was a lifetime of adventures, and I hope that the adventures will never end.

Brian Horne is a postdoctoral fellow for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

Read Brian’s previous post, India: Life on the Chambal.

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India: Life on the Chambal

Brian and Kundan Singh Kushwaha (Forest Department field assistant) after a long day surveying red-crowned roof turtles during a record heat wave.

Brian and Kundan Singh Kushwaha (Forest Department field assistant) after a long day surveying red-crowned roof turtles during a record heat wave.

It has been three straight days with temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit (48.8 degrees Celsius)! Let me tell you, that’s hot, really hot, so hot my thermometer doesn’t go any higher. Our field station has no air conditioner and the fans work infrequently as we only have electricity a few hours a day, and sometimes we go several days with none. A regular supply of electricity is a mere fantasy, like a child’s wish of candy raining from the sky.

Days like these remind me of old M.A.S.H. reruns on television. I used to always think the stories of Hawkeye Pierce and B.J. Honeycutt sweating away in their tents was overly dramatized. I laughed at how ridiculous they looked languishing in their sweat-drenched shirts. But now the stories take on an entirely new meaning. From personal experience, I know they were faking it. I look much more pathetic than they ever did! (Read Brian’s previous blog, Field Adventures in India)

The amazing thing is that in a few weeks, the monsoon rains will come, and we will have to deal with the heat plus high humidity. Yet right now, we are in the “dust bowl” stage. It hasn’t rained in months, and the parched earth lends itself to erosion via the strong winds that herald the arrival the monsoons. Dust is everywhere! It makes daily ear cleaning a must. I thought I was losing my hearing after a long day in the field. I was nearly panicked. I cannot adequately express the overwhelming sense of relief when I realized it was just sand that had clogged my ear canals!

But neither extreme heat nor sandstorm is deterring us from accomplishing our project’s goals. We have over 200 red-crowned roof turtle Batagur kachuga nests in riverside hatcheries, and hatching should start within the next week. Construction is coming along nicely on our new headstarting facility, the local welder is finishing the predator proofing that will completely fence the large pond. This facility will be a model “green” system of recirculating water through biofiltration tanks, with all the water pumps being powered by solar energy. Additionally, we have broken ground for our education center; we expect it to be ready by late summer. Hopefully by then high daily temperatures will be back down to comfortable 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius).

Just a thought: would a battery powered ice-cream maker be a justified “research” expense?

Brian Horne is a postdoctoral fellow for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

Moderator’s note: Brian has been granted permission by the government of Myanmar to survey the upper Chindwin River in the Huakong Tiger Reserve (a first for a western chelonianist, or person who studies turtles) for remnant populations of the Burmese roof turtle Batagur trivittata. This turtle was thought to be extinct for nearly 60 years until a small breeding population was discovered on the lower Chindwin River several years ago. For the past four years, Brian has been working with the Turtle Survival Alliance and the Wildlife Conservation Society to headstart juveniles at the Yandabon Zoo in Mandalay from hatchlings produced at riverside hatcheries on the lower Chindwin River. He will search for suitable release sites for the largest juveniles in hopes of maintaining wild populations of this critically endangered turtle in late May and early June.

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Field Adventures in India

Gharial

Gharial

I am preparing myself for another adventure in India: two months of fieldwork along one of India’s greatest biodiverse rivers, the Chambal. Each of my trips to India over the past four years has been incredibly different from one another, so I have no way to guess what this trip will have in store for me.

During my first trips, I felt like a whirling dervish among the bustling trains and masses of humanity as I made my way from one metropolis to another. My later trips have found me setting up residence in a small rural village on the banks of the Chambal River, with blast furnace hot days and nights when I felt as if I was sleeping in a walk-in beer cooler.

take a look at thits!

This is my host family's house and where we slept when it wasn't raining. When it rained we moved into the shed with the water buffalo.

Village life is good, although the children are still scared that I am secretly a medical doctor whose role it is to give vaccination injections when they least expect it. I have grown used to sleeping on a traditional short wooden cot with my feet propped on a plastic lawn chair next to my host family’s water buffalo. And, in turn, I think the buffalo has taken a liking to me (I sneak Loraine, as I affectionately call her, treats when no one is looking). However, I struggle with bathing at the communal well; I just am too bashful to be seen in my skivvies in front of the entire village! So, I wait until the sun has set and no leering eyes are present to have my “bucket shower.” This also saves me from becoming a lobster, as my fair Irish skin burns incredibly easily.

yummy

This is a typical large mid-day meal served on metal plates. The plates have edges, as food is eaten with your hands and you need the edges so your food doesn't end up in your lap while you're trying to scoop it up!

My U.S. friends often ask me how I like food while I am away for months on end. I explain to them that Indian food in India is often not like the foods you see in restaurants stateside. There is the typical nan or roti (flat bread) accompanied by lentils and rice, but I do not eat tikka malsala (my personal favorite) for every meal. For breakfast, I really like the fresh yogurt made from buffalo milk, and spicy samosas make a great between-meal treat.

I will be leaving in a few short weeks with my bags stuffed with field gear and plenty of sun block, resting assured that this trip will truly be a new adventure.

Brian Horne, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow for San Diego Zoo Conservation Research. He is working to help endangered red-crowned roof turtles and gharials in India.

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