New Ark paves way for turtle conservation
Monday 6 March 2006
A newly refurbished project room at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo welcomes an internationally important collection of freshwater turtles to the UK.
A collection of 18 critically endangered South East Asian freshwater turtles has been introduced to a new purpose-built breeding facility at the Discovery Centre as part of an internationally coordinated turtle assurance colony programme, the Turtle Survival Alliance.
More than 10 million turtles are consumed and used in traditional medicine every year in China. The Turtle Survival Alliance, administered by the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist group, has been developed in response to the threat this poses to wild populations.
The six species introduced to ZSL Whipsnade Zoo represent some of the most highly threatened species on the planet and are rare both in the wild and in captivity. ZSL Whipsnade Zoo is the only zoo in the UK to hold McCord’s’ box turtle and the other five species are only held at one other UK zoo.
One turtle species in the collection is known only from the Chinese food markets and has never been found or seen in the wild by biologists. Its origin and natural habitat are therefore unknown and the fact this species is now absent from the markets suggests it may be extinct in the wild.
The Turtle Ark at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, in collaboration with countless other Turtle Survival Alliance participants around the globe, aims to maintain and breed these critically endangered species in order to hold genetically viable assurance colonies that may one day be used for reintroduction should the wild populations become extinct. However, before such programmes can be undertaken, the major threats which face the wild turtles - uncontrolled and unsustainable over-exploitation - must be adequately addressed.
Next door to the Discovery Centre’s Turtle Ark is another newly renovated facility. The Egyptian tortoise breeding room is dedicated to one of the world’s smallest, but most endangered, tortoises. This species has bred well at Whipsnade’s sister collection, ZSL London Zoo, and it is hoped that the conditions in their new home will lead to similar success at Whipsnade.
All of these species have been prioritized for captive breeding work by ShellShock, an international campaign launched by European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) to save the world’s most threatened turtles and tortoises.
ShellShock promotes public awareness about the threats facing these animals, encourages zoos and aquariums to dedicate space to them in their collections and raises money to support field conservation and research initiatives. One such initiative is a new ZSL project in Nepal to help conserve the tortoises and freshwater turtles of the southern lowlands.
These new captive facilities and field conservation programme demonstrate ZSL’s growing commitment to endangered tortoises and turtles worldwide.