Evolution of the Turtle Conservancy
The Wildlife Conservation Society (‘WCS’, formerly known as the New York Zoological Society) created the Wildlife Survival Center on St. Catherines Island off the coast of Georgia with the mission of promoting the conservation and breeding of threatened and endangered species, including the Arabian Oryx, the Sable Antelope, and the Ring-tailed Lemur.
The WCS established a herd of Radiated Tortoises on St. Catherine’s Island. These tortoises were brought to the United States from Madagascar in the late 1960s by Robert Baudy. Many of these wild-caught animals were likely over 100 years old and represented the beginnings of an assurance colony of ‘founder animals’ in the US, creating a last line of protection against this species’ extinction.
The WCS decided to discontinue their conservation program on St. Catherines Island, and the process of relocating the animals from the island to other institutions began.
John L. Behler, the Curator of the Department of Herpetology at the WCS, approached Eric Goode and Maurice Rodrigues with a proposal to continue the WCS’s turtle and tortoise conservation work at a new location. John knew of Eric and Maurice’s extensive experience with the captive management of chelonians, and he believed that they had the knowledge and passion to properly care for this group of tortoises and turtles from St. Catherines.
After almost 30 years of work, John wanted to ensure that the assurance colonies he had built would remain intact and that the breeding program would continue under the stewardship of responsible conservationists.
John Behler and William Holmstrom of the WCS flew out to southern California to approve the site of the future turtle and tortoise center that would house the St. Catherines animals. The center’s location was chosen for its Mediterranean climate, which was perfectly suited for many of the tortoise species in the WCS colonies.
With John and Bill’s approval, construction began on the four new buildings that would comprise the heart of the ‘Chelonian Conservation Center’: a state of-the-art greenhouse, two tortoise houses, and a nursery and commissary, along with numerous outdoor enclosures and ponds for the turtles and tortoises.
At the conclusion of construction at the Center, the animals in the WCS’s St. Catherines Island collection were sent to their new home in California, and shortly after arriving, began to reproduce. Species successfully bred that first year included Burmese Star Tortoises, Radiated Tortoises, Spider Tortoises, Flat-tailed Spider Tortoises, Speckled Padloppers, Angulated Tortoises, and Indian Spotted Turtles.
The Chelonian Conservation Center was incorporated as a California not-for-profit, and quickly cemented its new place in the conservation community by becoming a member of the Turtle Survival Alliance and the International Species Information System.
The Chelonian Conservation Center was officially dedicated to the memory of John L. Behler upon his passing. To honor John, the Center was rechristened the ’Behler Chelonian Center’ (BCC), recognizing that John’s vision and insight were the driving forces behind the creation of the facility.
The BCC sought and was granted accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
Realizing that ex situ conservation was only half of the battle for turtle survival, the founders and Board of the BCC established the ‘Turtle Conservancy’ (TC), an organization whose mission would incorporate both the ex situ work being done at the Center, and complementary in situ conservation work with those species being kept at the Center. The newly formed TC immediately began driving several major in situ projects.
In November the TC received two Madagascar Ploughshare Tortoises, a species that has since become our flagship species. These two animals came to us from the Pingtung Rescue Center in Taiwan and were the first individuals of this species legally imported into the United States in over 40 years. There were fewer than 1,000 Ploughshare Tortoises left in the world at that time, making the establishment of ex situ assurance colonies of critical importance.
Realizing that the scope and complexity of the mission of the BCC had expanded well beyond the original vision of the founders, The TC hired Dr. Paul Gibbons, one of the world’s preeminent reptile veterinary experts, as Managing Director and Veterinarian of the BCC.
We received eight additional Ploughshare Tortoises from our partners at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong, followed shortly by an adult male that had been in the U.S. for 40 years. We now had a total of 11 animals including an adult male and two adult females.
In January of 2011, the BCC underwent its five-year recertification inspection by the AZA. To quote the inspection report, “This facility is growing into a high standard, maturing AZA facility as evidenced by the collaboration among the Board, staff, and consultants working toward a dynamic conservation organization.”
The BCC campus also expanded to accommodate additional species and the fruits of its exceptionally successful captive breeding efforts. To facilitate this expansion, the TC purchased additional property adjacent to the original BCC campus. This allowed for more space for people and chelonians alike. Animals were provided with larger grazing areas, and housing for additional guests, visiting scientists and interns was added to the property. The BCC continued to evolve into a place where conservationists, scientists, and researchers from around the world could come to meet and work.
The TC’s mission continued to broaden, with new species at the BCC and new projects in the field. Part of the TC’s mission has always been to increase public awareness of the immense challenges facing turtles and tortoises around the globe. To this end, we were fortunate enough to have features detailing the history of our founders and the TC, and our work with Ploughshare Tortoises, published in The New Yorker magazine and broadcast in a feature segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes.
We also published the first issue of our magazine, The Tortoise, a publication aimed at reaching people who are not yet passionate about turtle conservation, igniting their passion for conservation and encouraging them to support it.
Partnering with Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden the TC sent 5 Golden Coin Turtles that had been hatched at the BCC back to Hong Kong where Kadoorie is planning to release them back into the wild. This was the first time turtles hatched in the U.S. were sent back to their range country, and represents the highest and best outcome for conservation through captive breeding.
Realizing that the job of managing the Conservancy had outgrown the capabilities of a volunteer Board of Directors, the TC hired its first Executive Director, Ross Popenoe.
The Turtle Conservancy continues to flourish and is constantly expanding both its in situ and ex situ efforts to save the world’s remaining populations of turtles and tortoises employing a creative combination of both time-tested and unique conservation strategies. The TC has active in situ projects in China, Madagascar, Guyana, India, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, South Africa, and the United States.