Evolution of the Turtle Conservancy
The Wildlife Conservation Society creates 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, the Ring-tailed Lemur, and the Giant Tortoise.
Under John L. Behler’s leadership, WCS establishes a herd of Radiated Tortoises on St. Catherine’s Island. These tortoises were brought to the United States from Madagascar in the late 1960s. Many of these wild-caught animals were likely mature animals and represented the beginnings of an assurance colony of “founder animals” in the US. By 1985 WCS had assembled the first breeding group of Critically Endangered Ploughshare Tortoises. Eventually the collection included a variety of Critically Endangered tortoises from Madagascar and Southeast Asia.
WCS decides to discontinue their conservation program on St. Catherines Island, and the process of relocating the animals from the island to other institutions begins. John Behler approaches Eric Goode and Maurice Rodrigues with a proposal to continue WCS’s turtle and tortoise conservation work at a new location. After almost 30 years of work, John wanted to ensure that the assurance colonies of tortoises he had built would remain intact and that the breeding program would continue into perpetuity.
John Behler and Eric Goode agree on moving the collection to a property in California, which would become a turtle and tortoise center housing the St. Catherines animals. The center’s location was chosen for its Mediterranean climate, which suited many of the tortoise species in the WCS colonies.
With John’s approval, construction began on a series of new buildings and greenhouses that would comprise the heart of the new Chelonian Conservation Center: a state of-the-art greenhouse, two tortoise houses, nursery, quarantine, commissary, guest houses and numerous outdoor enclosures and ponds for the turtles and tortoises.
The Center opens and shortly after the animals arrive at their new home. They begin to reproduce. Species successfully bred that first year include the tortoises Burmese Star, Radiated, Angulated, Spider, Flat-tailed, Speckled Padloppers, as well as Indian Spotted Turtles. The Chelonian Conservation Center is incorporated as a California not-for-profit and quickly establishes its new place in the conservation community.
The Chelonian Conservation Center is officially dedicated to the memory of John L. Behler upon his passing and is rechristened the Behler Chelonian Center (BCC), in recognition of his vision and insight, which were the driving forces behind the creation of the facility.
The Center becomes accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
The founders and the Board of the BCC establish the Turtle Conservancy with the mission to protect threatened turtles and tortoises and their native habitats worldwide. The newly formed TC continues to develop its ex situ work at the Center, but it also immediately begins several major in situ projects in countries around the world, including Madagascar, Myanmar, Mexico, and South Africa. In the coming years, land acquisition and conservation becomes a major priority in order to ensure that turtles and tortoises, including those at the Center, thrive in the wild.
In November the TC receives two Madagascar Ploughshare Tortoises from the Pingtung Rescue Center in Taiwan. They were the first individuals of this species legally imported into the United States in over 40 years. With fewer than 1,000 Ploughshare Tortoises left in the world at that time, the establishment of ex situ assurance colonies was of critical importance. The TC hires 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.