Lowcountry turtle sanctuary (Turtle Survival Alliance) seeks to save species from around the world


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Dec. 27 2014. Charleston, SC Post & Courier

CROSS - Deep in the woods of Berkeley County, some of the world's rarest and most endangered turtle species are being saved from collectors and Asian dinner plates.
The most threatened ones are so few in number they can fetch upwards of $25,000 each on the black market.
They come from Madagascar and central Africa, China and Vietnam, Bangladesh and Cambodia - places where conservation is almost nonexistent.
The group behind the effort, the Turtle Survival Alliance, sees their sanctuary as a sort of Noah's Ark, where some of nature's rarest but slow-moving creatures can be protected before extinction means they disappear forever.
"The turtles we have here aren't safe in their home countries," Patricia Koval, alliance board chairwoman, said of the more than 500 turtles and tortoises representing 34 species housed on the site's protected 50-acre compound.
"We are committed to zero turtle extinctions," Koval added. "Turtles are disappearing faster than any other animal in the world."

The nonprofit alliance has been working to save endangered land turtles since 2001. Today they operate sanctuaries, conservation teams and turtle advocacies all over the world. Their goal is to combat an extinction threat that especially took off in the 1970s and '80s when emerging markets triggered dramatic increases in Asian wealth, fueling a demand for rare wildlife as food and collectibles. That trade continues today but with higher dollar amounts involved as various species have become more rare.
Two years ago, alliance leaders bought the property in Cross to serve as its North American Turtle Survival Center. The site proved ideal. It previously was used as an alligator and crocodile sanctuary and clinic run by Lowcountry reptile veterinarian and conservationist Sam Seashole, aka "the Croc Doc."

One feature that made the site particularly attractive as a global turtle refuge is the Lowcountry's moderate coastal lowland climate. That means summer temperatures match what is often seen in the semi-tropical turtle ranges of Asia and Africa. And the local moderate winters also mirror what some species experience in their native mountainous highlands.

The work that goes on at the site is geared toward operating the sanctuary for decades and with a far horizon. That means breeding as researchers try to build up captive colonies. Turtle varieties have lifespans that range up to 100 years, which also means they remain sexually reproductive for decades.
"That's one of the few things these turtles have on their side is long life spans," said Cris Hagen, director of animal management at the center.
Many of the turtles at the site were acquired through government confiscations or as donations from collectors who'd kept them as pets or for show. Mating patterns are traced by what are called stud books meant to follow lineage.

On-site, the turtles are kept in warm, comfortable pens, indoors and outdoors, containing fresh water, wet mulch and hiding places. Many are kept alone because turtles are mostly solitary by nature or otherwise aggressive and prone to combat when forced to share space. The forest hinge-back tortoise, for instance, which is native to central Africa, has two front-protruding parts from its body to flip opponents in combat. It's akin to male deer fighting with their antlers.

Other species at the center include Zhou's box turtles, native to China; Chinese big-headed turtles; adult impressed tortoises; and Home's hinge-back tortoises, which have faced a rapid decline in Africa because of the bush meat trade.
Their diet now is mostly insects, worms, fruits and vegetables and oyster mushrooms grown by the monks at nearby Mempkin Abbey.

None of the turtles at the Cross site are native North American species. Those are already protected or regulated under U.S. federal and domestic state agencies.
The compound is staffed around the clock by employees who live on site. Each one is fully aware of the financial and the breeding values of their bale. They call their security precautions "robust." The site is not open to the public, but one goal is to offer turtle education opportunities with school groups.
Eventually, alliance officials hope their effort can help in world research and on finding better ways to protect and reintroduce species to the wild. One hurdle in getting such re-introductions to occur any time soon is the level of corruption that's deeply embedded in many foreign countries of Asia and Africa where these rare species call home.
In the meantime, the group hopes that what happens in Berkeley County can one day have an impact on the rest of the world.
"They survived the dinosaurs," Koval said of the turtles of the world. "We would like to see them survive us."

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