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Visiting One of the Last Populations of Geometric Tortoises

In early June I traveled to South Africa in search of one of the world’s rarest tortoise species, the Geometric Tortoise (Psammbotes geometricus). It was an emotional experience for a number of reasons. First, this is a species that has captured my imagination since I was a child. Second, I took my son, Max, now 10 years old, on his first international field expedition. For weeks prior to our trip we read historical accounts of the species. It was thought to be extinct in the 1960s, but was then rediscovered in 1972, the year I was born.

The Geometric Tortoise is restricted to a particular type of grass and scrubland habitat called renosterveld, a subcategory of the more familiar fynbos. Unfortunately for the species, this same habitat is ideal for conversion to vineyards and wheat fields. Now less than 3 percent of the original habitat remains, but with swift conservation action we can save and recover the species. Importantly, the same habitat has 9,000 plant species, which is more than you can find in the entire Amazon Basin. The 1,000 acres that have been protected by our partnering organizations so far are home to a remarkable 20 threatened plant species, including one that was rediscovered after having been declared extinct more than 50 years ago.

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On June 18, Max and I arrived at the site known to be home to one of the last populations of Geometrics. Conditions were good–it had rained recently and a warm afternoon sun was providing ideal basking conditions on this South African winter’s day. We were joined by our partners from the Turtle Conservancy, Rainforest Trust and Cape Nature. We were intrigued by the two tortoise-sniffing dogs that had been trained by Cape Nature biologists to seek out tortoises six times more effectively than humans. But Max and I knew that we had to find one on our own.

We set out across the field with great anticipation, and a wary eye for puff adders and spitting cobras also known from the area. Within an hour of searching, we literally stumbled upon our first Geometric, a young animal basking at the base of a grass tussock that provided great cover for the remarkable shell pattern. We were elated! After a flurry of photos and high fives, we set out again. A while later, Max hollered, “Dad, here’s a big one!” Before I could reach him he said, “It’s empty…” Max had discovered the shell of an approximately 40-year old female tortoise that had last been found back in November by Dr. Jim Juvik of the Turtle Conservancy. Why she died remains a mystery, but the discovery provides an important insight into lifespan of these tortoises in the wild. This kind of information helps us build demographic models that we can use to determine how well the tortoise populations are doing and what their habitat needs may be.

All told, Max and I found three Geometric Tortoises that day. The dogs predictably found 20 more.

We are currently looking toward expansion of the existing reserve and implementing proper management to remove invasive species and build strategic fences to protect the tortoises from crossing nearby highways. Global Wildlife Conservation is committed to working with our partners to protect endangered species in South Africa and in other key biodiversity areas of the continent.

About the Author

Don Church

Don Church

Dr. Don Church is GWC's president and director of conservation. He works with partners to develop projects aimed at conserving globally threatened species and their habitats. A focus of his work is on identifying priority sites and opportunities for species conservation through the creation of new protected areas, and also developing innovative strategies to address threats beyond habitat loss.

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