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Ploughshare Tortoise

Turtles: Evolutionary Survivors
Facing Threats in the Modern Era

With half of all turtle species at risk of extinction, turtles are one of the world’s two most threatened major vertebrate groups. 

Tortoises and freshwater turtles play an important role in their ecosystems. Tortoises in the Galápagos Islands, Neotropical rain forests and African arid lands are important seed dispersers for many plants, trees and fungi. Snapping and softshell turtles are important scavengers that help maintain clean aquatic ecosystems. Turtle watching is an awe-inspiring experience, whether seeing a nesting sea turtle on an exotic beach or spotting a languidly basking slider turtle at a local wetland. 

Global Turtle Distribution

Turtle global distribution map

Copyright basemap © 2013 National Geographic Society; copyright turtle distribution overlay © 2017 Turtle Taxonomy WG

Threats to Turtles

Alarmingly, seven species of turtles have gone extinct in recent history, and of the remaining 360 species, more than half are imperiled, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and ongoing assessment work. 

While turtles have evolved to keep a few steps ahead of the extinction risks posed by predators, severe weather and disease for 225 million years, humans have proven to be their most profound threat.

Humans have altered, destroyed and polluted tortoise and freshwater turtle habitat and spread diseases that threaten its populations. Even more directly, people have demolished tortoise and turtle populations by collecting them for food, pets and/or medicinal use–both legally and illegally.

Confiscated turtles

Examining confiscated Ricefield Turtles (Photo by Peter Paul van Dijk)

Between 2000 and 2015, more than 300,000 tortoises and freshwater turtles were seized from global illegal trade, and this includes only the reported seizures. Some species, such as the Ploughshare Tortoise, are at the edge of extinction because of illegal trade. 

Top photo: Ploughshare Tortoise (Photo by Peter Paul van Dijk)

Wild Facts
There are 360 known species of turtles
Found on all continents except Antarctica
Swinhoe’s Giant Softshell Turtle is the most threatened turtle

Preventing Extinction of the World’s
Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles

Global Wildlife Conservation works with the Turtle Conservancy, IUCN and other global and local organizations to prevent the extinction of the world’s tortoises and freshwater turtles. We do this by:

  • Protecting  habitat for critically endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles along with other conservation groups.
  • Researching the distribution, natural history, population status and conservation needs of turtle species and providing this information through technical publications and public outreach, such as the Checklist and Atlas of Turtles of the World
  • Supporting the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species to assess the conservation status of every species of tortoise and freshwater turtle. This information helps conservationists prioritize and manage imperiled species.
  • Monitoring and analyzing illegal trade and using this information to help develop policy that combats poaching and illegal trade at local, national and international (CITES) levels.
Swinhoe's Giant Softshell Turtle

Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle (Photo by Gerald Kuchling)

Swinhoe’s Giant Asian Softshell Turtle
(China and Vietnam)

Swinhoe’s Giant Asian Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) is one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world, reaching up to 260 pounds. Only four known individuals of this species exist, including a male in captivity in China at the Suzhou Zoo, and three individuals in different lakes in Vietnam. Captive breeding efforts in China have been unsuccessful to date: Until her death in 2019, the female laid eggs each year, but all proved infertile, and the male has a severely damaged penis, likely as the result of a battle with another male decades ago. The future of this species will depend on the individuals in Vietnam, where GWC is part of a coalition trying to secure habitat, bring known animals together and catalyse successful reproduction.   

Geometric Tortoise in South Africa

Geometric Tortoise in its natural habitat in South Africa (Photo by Peter Paul van Dijk)

Geometric Tortoise (South Africa)

The Geometric Tortoise (Psammobates geometricus) is one of the most imperiled turtle species in the world. Originally widespread in the lowland Fynbos habitat of the Western Cape province of South Africa, near-complete conversion of this habitat to vineyards, orchards and wheat fields has almost completely eliminated the species. 

As previous conservation efforts for this tortoise were failing, the Turtle Conservancy and the Southern Africa Tortoise Conservation Trust, with support from GWC, stepped in to progressively purchase one of the very few remaining habitat patches where the tortoise still thrives. Having established the dedicated Preserve for this species, our conservation actions now focus mainly on habitat management, particularly invasive vegetation removal and management of wildfires, as well as research and tortoise population recovery. 

Bolson Tortoise in Mexico

Bolson Tortoise (Photo by James Liu)

Bolson Tortoise (Mexico)

GWC closely supports the Turtle Conservancy and the Mexican NGO HABIO, A.C., to protect the Bolson Tortoise (Gopherus flavomarginatus) in its habitat in Mexico. 

The centerpiece of those efforts is the 43,000 acre Bolson Tortoise Ecosystem Preserve (BTEP) in the Bolson de Mapimi Biosphere Reserve in northern Mexico. The Preserve was established in 2016 and encompasses some of the healthiest remaining groups of Bolson Tortoises living in the wild. 

Beyond the Biosphere Reserve, this species once ranged throughout the grasslands of the Chihuahuan Desert wilderness, but has now effectively disappeared due to overexploitation and extensive habitat conversion for agriculture. Our work at the Preserve focuses on cattle exclusion, vegetation restoration and local community engagement. Complementary work by our colleagues at the Turner Endangered Species Fund aims to eventually return these tortoises to other historical locations. 

Rediscovered Fernandina Galápagos Tortoise

Fernandina Galápagos Tortoise (Photo by Forrest Galante, Animal Planet)

Fernandina Galápagos Tortoise (Ecuador)

The Giant Tortoise of Fernandina Island in the Galápagos was known from a single specimen described in 1906. While tantalizing glimpses of tortoise presence were reported since, it was not until February 2019 that a second tortoise was confirmed on Fernandina island. The original male specimen of Chelonoidis phantasticus is one of the most extreme saddleback tortoises ever seen, yet the female found recently does not show the expected matching saddleback shape; genetic testing is underway to clarify her identity. Regardless of her ancestry, the island of Fernandina, which is the youngest and volcanically most active island in Ecuador’s Galápagos archipelago, deserves further tortoise surveys and conservation support for its remarkable biodiversity.

 

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