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Conserving Chelonians in Sulawesi, Indonesia

By Christine Light, guest blogger

Chelonians are among the most endangered vertebrates on Earth with nearly half of the world’s species threatened with extinction. Unfortunately, this situation is largely overlooked in the worldwide conservation community due to the fact that turtles are reptiles and not the typically “cute and cuddly” iconic mammals revered in popular culture. Two species in particular that have received very little attention are the Endangered Forsten’s Tortoise (Indotestudo forstenii) and the Critically Endangered Sulawesi Forest Turtle (Leucocephalon yuwonoi), which are the only two endemic chelonians found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Future Conservationists - Indonesian University Students (Photo courtesy of Christine Light)

Future conservationists–Indonesian University students (Photo courtesy of Christine Light)

As part of the Wallacea Biodiversity Hotspot, Sulawesi is home to many species found nowhere else in the world, like the Anoa, Babirusa, Crested Black Macaque, Speckled Tarsier and Maleo as well as over 1,000 endemic plant species and more than 75 freshwater fish species. While there has been a significant push toward protecting some of these species over the last few years, the lack of research or conservation efforts focused primarily on the Forsten’s Tortoise and the Sulawesi Forest Turtle are driving these two species toward extinction. Combined with severe deforestation, with more than 80 percent of the island’s forest degraded and the pressure of unsustainable collection for the pet and bushmeat trades, time is running out, not only for these two species, but for this amazing island and all its inhabitants.

As the SSP Coordinator and AZA Regional Studbook Keeper for the Forsten’s Tortoise, my main responsibility is to document the pedigree and demographic history of each tortoise within a managed, ex situ population. Luckily, this species does very well in captivity. Because many individuals and institutions have successfully bred the species, we have been able to maintain a large and healthy ex situ assurance colony. Despite this success, the tortoises are still being regularly imported into the United States, as they are not listed as a protected species within Indonesia, and most have perished due to stress and disease-related issues.


Hunter with recently captured Forsten’s Tortoise (Photo courtesy of Christine Light)

This is not necessarily the case for the Sulawesi Forest Turtle. The lack of any substantial ecological research on the species has hindered ex situ conservation efforts and breeding success has been limited to only a very few individuals and institutions, thus greatly limiting the development of a substantial assurance colony. They are considered a protected species within Indonesia, but this does not guarantee that illegal poaching and trade aren’t still extremely prevalent.

Meetings with government officials (Photo courtesy of Christine Light)

Meetings with government officials (Photo courtesy of Christine Light)

Both species are also part of the AZA Species Survival Plan (SSP) Program and one of the main priorities of this program is to enhance in situ conservation. In June of this year, my team and I traveled to Indonesia to lay the groundwork for our proposed in situ conservation initiative, with funding help from GWC. The trip proved to be very productive. We were successful in establishing relationships with local government agencies, universities and conservation organizations. We were also able to identify several potential field study sites in the Central and Northern Sulawesi Provinces where we will work with local university students to conduct status and distribution surveys and species monitoring programs. We also began communications with residents in local communities within and near these areas. Through community outreach, education, and incentives, we aim to empower the local residents to become “Species Stewards.” We want to provide them with the information and resources they will need to become actively engaged in the conservation of these species and their habitat and aim to evoke a sense of personal responsibility toward ensuring that these species and their habitats are protected.

To find out more about our project please visit our crowdfunding campaign, Conservation Efforts to Protect Endangered Turtles of Sulawesi

(Header image by Shantanu Kundu & Kulendra Ch Das / Assam Univ. & Mizoram Univ. / India via Arkive)

About the Author

Christine Light

Christine began her career in Marine Biology as an Aquarist at the Aquarium of the Pacific in California where she worked with many species of marine fish, sharks, and invertebrates. She then moved to Denver to work as the Assistant Curator of Fish, Inverts, and Herps at the Downtown Aquarium. While there, she successfully rehabbed a very sick Painted Terrapin (Batagur borneoensis). That experience inspired her to want to do conservation work with freshwater turtles and tortoises. Returning to California, she has spent the last three years at the Turtle Conservancy's conservation and captive breeding facility, where she had the opportunity to work with some of the world's most critically endangered turtles and tortoises. Christine is now focusing her attention on in situ turtle conservation focusing on the two endemic species from Sulawesi, Indonesia.