3 years ago

Turtles in Trouble



Turtles in Trouble: Top 25+ Endangered Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles—2011Pinta Giant Tortoise, Abingdon Island Giant TortoiseChelonoidis abingdonii (Günther 1877); Family TestudinidaeSouth America: Ecuador (Galápagos: Pinta [Abingdon] [extirpated])IUCN Red List: EW, Extinct in the Wild, as Chelonoidis nigra abingdoniCITES: Appendix I, as Chelonoidis nigraWhile there is some scientific disagreementwhether the various differentisland forms of Galápagos tortoisesrepresent separate species or subspecies,all agree that Lonesome George(aptly named and seen here at right)is the last surviving individual of hiskind, the Abingdon Island or Pinta GiantTortoise, Chelonoidis abingdonii.The species was driven to near-extinctionby collection for consumption bywhalers during the 19th century andother Galápagos settlers during the20th century, with Lonesome Georgebeing found as the last living tortoiseon his island in 1972.After being found he was movedinto protective custody at the CharlesDarwin Research Station on SantaCruz Island in the hope that a femalemight be found for a captive breedingprogram—but this has not happeneddespite extensive husbandry and matingefforts. Thus the Pinta Tortoise isnow listed as Extinct in the Wild onthe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species,and his species faces imminentand certain extinction unless a femaleof his kind is found somewhere.Amazingly, and offering a faint glimmer of hope, recentfield research elsewhere in the Galápagos has demonstratedthat a very few hybrid animals carrying up to 50% ofLonesome George’s genotype have been found among wildtortoises on Albemarle Island (Isabela) around the base ofVolcan Wolf. These are likely from a ship dropping somePinta Tortoises overboard in an emergency long ago, afterwhich some of them drifted ashore and interbred with theLonesome George, Chelonoidis abingdonii. Photo by Anders G.J. Rhodin.local tortoises, Chelonoidis becki. Genetic screening andselective back-crossing offers new hope that LonesomeGeorge’s lineage could be partially restored, but this wouldbe an exceedingly long shot with very low likelihood of success.Lonesome George has become a conservation icon anda symbol for heroic last-ditch efforts to save a species fromextinction, but barring unlikely reproductive success, maytruly become the very last of his kind.Distribution of Chelonoidis abingdonii.Lonesome George, C. abingdonii. Photo by Peter C.H. Pritchard.– 18 –

Turtles in Trouble: Top 25+ Endangered Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles—2011Red River Giant Softshell Turtle, Yangtze Giant Softshell TurtleRafetus swinhoei (Gray 1873); Family TrionychidaeAsia: China (Anhui [?, extirpated?], Jiangsu [?, extirpated?], Yunnan, Zhejiang [?, extirpated?]), VietnamIUCN Red List: CR, Critically Endangered A1cd+2cdCITES: Appendix III (China)Rafetus swinhoei is an enormous softshellturtle with shell length over 100 cm that can reach120 kg (250 lbs). Historically this species inhabitedthe Red River of Yunnan, China, and Vietnam, andpossibly the lower Yangtze River floodplain. Althoughworshipped in some areas, capture for consumption,wetland destruction, and water pollutionhave severely impacted its populations. It is hardto believe that such a magnificent creature is almostgone, yet the global population is down to only fourknown remaining individuals. One has lived for decadesin Hoan Kiem Lake in downtown Hanoi whereit is respected and worshipped; another lives in a lakewest of Hanoi. Unfortunately, both are males.The other remaining two animals, a male and afemale, currently reside together in the Suzhou Zooin China, after decades of living in separate facilitiesin China. The culmination of years of work byWildlife Conservation Society China, Turtle Survival Alliance,and Chinese authorities, with support from the TurtleConservation Fund and other organizations, brought thesetwo animals together in 2008. Eggs have been producedeach year since, but all have died during incubation. Yearsof inadequate nutrition and perhaps the advanced age of themale (possibly >100 years) may be contributing to the lackof successful breeding. With continuous input from the supportingorganizations, numerous husbandry adjustments havebeen made with regard to monitoring nutrition, egg incubation,water quality, and visitor impact. Glass barriers havebeen erected around the breeding pools to prevent public feedingand trash disposal, and the pair can be now be left togetheryear around to improve the chances of a successful breeding.Recent intensive surveys in Yunnan, China, showedevidence of R. swinhoei encounters in the past twenty years,and one or a few more individuals could still be survivingin the wild. In Vietnam, the Asian Turtle Conservation Networkhas worked tirelessly over the past decade to surveyLast known wild R. swinhoei, nr. Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Tim McCormack.suitable wetlands for surviving wild individuals (and foundthe fourth known animal as a result), and is working with localcommunities and authorities on turtle conservation awareness.This work was rewarded when the wetland west of Hanoibroke its dam last year and the turtle was caught about 10km downriver; the existing awareness enabled the turtle to beretrieved from the fisherman and released into its (repaired)wetland unharmed. Had the awareness campaign not beensuccessful this animal would have ended up in a soup pot.Priority actions for the species include continuing towork with Suzhou Zoo towards successful reproduction andeventually developing a reintroduction program for the species.This may include bringing in one of the other, potentiallyyounger males. In addition, it is essential to continue surveysand awareness work in Yunnan and northern Vietnamwhere possibly another individual could be located in thewild and possibly brought together with the last known wildanimal. Awareness and continued local vigilance is neededon behalf of the last wild individual.Distribution of Rafetus swinhoei.Female R. swinhoei, in Suzhou Zoo. Photo by Gerald Kuchling.– 19 –

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