for National Geographic News
Turtles have been wandering the earth for 200 million years, and managed
to survive the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million
years ago. Their ultimate challenge though, may be surviving the impact
of human activities.
Three-quarters of Asia's freshwater turtle species are now listed as threatened under international treaties, and more than half are considered endangered. Many species in the rest of the world are also threatened.
The Turtle Survival Alliance, a coalition of diverse interest groups, is pursuing what might be the last-ditch option for preserving some turtle species.
The alliance is establishing an international network of "assurance colonies" designed to house and maintain enough turtles of each species to repopulate in the wild once the current threats to their existence have been eliminated.
"Turtles are fascinating animals, truly unique in the world with their shells and body design, and it's our job to keep them here," said Kurt Buhlmann, a conservation ecologist specializing in turtles and co-chair of the Turtle Survival Alliance.
"Assurance colonies are not a conservation strategy in and of itself," said Buhlmann, the coordinator for amphibian and turtle conservation at Conservation International and a visiting professor at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Lab.
The colonies, he explained, have to be tied to a larger, multi-faceted preservation planone that includes protecting natural habitats, establishing nature preserves, conducting basic research, improving law enforcement to curb excessive exploitation, and educating the public about the importance of species diversity and preservation.
"But time is running out for many species, and putting all these other pieces in place won't do any good if there are no turtles left," said Buhlmann. "Assurance colonies preserve future options."
Government agencies, zoos and aquariums, research scientists, commercial turtle breeders, field-based conservation organizations, veterinarians, and hobbyists are allied in the project, which is under the umbrella of the International Conservation Union (IUCN).
Asian turtles have declined dramatically in the last decade. Thousands of tons of turtles are being shipped to markets in China for human consumption and use in traditional medicines.
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