When it comes to caring for the world's rarest coldblooded animals, few places match the pampering and security provided to hundreds of critically endangered turtles and tortoises at a secret compound in the foothills of Los Padres National Forest.
VENTURA, Calif. — When it comes to caring for the world’s rarest coldblooded animals, few places match the pampering and security provided to hundreds of critically endangered turtles and tortoises at a secret compound in the foothills of Los Padres National Forest.
In paddocks and aquariums protected by surveillance cameras and electric wire, Okinawa leaf turtles feast on silkworms and mulberries in a temperature-controlled greenhouse. Nest-building Burmese black mountain tortoises relax in piles of freshly cut oak, sycamore and bamboo. Forest-dwelling impressed tortoises dine exclusively on organically grown oyster mushrooms. Philippine pond turtles spend the night in snug tunnels made of cork bark.
But VIPs there this month were eight ploughshare tortoises flown in from Hong Kong in padded crates. Among them is a female of breeding age, which Eric Goode and his associates at the nonprofit Turtle Conservancy’s Behler Chelonian Center hope to mate with the only male ploughshare tortoise of breeding age in North America.
“That male, which is en route from a zoo in Texas, hasn’t seen a female ploughshare tortoise of breeding age in more than 25 years,” Goode said. “We’re hoping for the best.”
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Some would call that an understatement. With fewer than 300 left in the wilds of Madagascar, the ploughshare tortoise holds the dubious distinction of being the rarest tortoise on Earth. They are heavily targeted by global animal traffickers, and the high-domed creatures fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the Asian black market, conservationists say.
Until recently, attempts to breed the ploughshare tortoise outside of Madagascar failed. In the early 1980s, a male died shortly after zoo workers in Honolulu used an electric device to procure semen. A female that it was supposed to have mated with lost her ovaries during a botched operation.
“Given their plight and scarcity, it took more than a decade of hard work by us, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and Hong Kong authorities and conservationists to get these eight tortoises into our compound,” said Paul Gibbons, managing director of the Behler Chelonian Center. “But, then, a lot of the animals in our pens have similar stories to tell.”
Many of the species found at the compound are nearing extinction because of habitat loss, wildfires, hunting and black markets.
“International animal trafficking is a dark and dangerous subculture,” Goode said. “Certain dealers will go to great extents to get their hands on these animals. That is why, although we are certified by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, we are not open to the public.”
There is no sign outside the facility, nor is it listed in the phone book. “The only visitors are turtle biologists from around the world,” Goode said.
The conservancy was established in 2005 with 250 rare turtles transferred from a Bronx Zoo collection that had been housed at Saint Catherines Island off the coast of Georgia. Today, the conservancy mostly manages animals seized from illegal trafficking operations, or bred in its outdoor pens.
The conservancy’s primary mission is to maintain “assurance colonies” of endangered tortoises and turtles.
It also lends some of its reptiles to zoos around the world, and collaborates with conservationists to protect the rarest species from extinction.