Get your head out of the sand! Turtles could go extinct.

Turtles have roamed the earth for 300 million years, ever since the time of dinosaurs. Unfortunately, these remarkable reptiles are on the brink of extinction.

Within the next 20 years, as many as a third of the world’s 300 species of tortoises and freshwater turtles may be gone because of poaching for the black market. At least 10 species are now extinct in the wild and exist only in captive breeding programs.

Why should you care? Turtles play an important role in the environment. For example, fresh water turtles help control aquatic vegetation, serve as scavengers and help keep rivers and lakes healthy. Turtles are also an important part of many cultures around the world.

Two zookeepers from the Virginia Zoo and three staff members/volunteers from the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News, all representing the local chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers, recently went to the Turtle Survival Center in South Carolina to work on projects to protect turtles. While there they fixed parameter fencing; made “hide boxes” for turtles from concrete, sand and glue that can withstand the S.C. heat and humidity; collected leaves for new turtle habitats; and helped to clear recently dug water flow trenches.

There was a large flood last fall in South Carolina, so the new trenches will help curb flooding in the future. There are more than 500 turtles, so they need lots of hide boxes. We were able to make a good sized dent in that number!

The Turtle Survival Alliance formed in 2001 in response to the the rampant and unsustainable harvest of Asian turtle populations to supply Chinese markets, a situation known as the Asian Turtle Crisis. The global partnership’s goal is zero extinctions in the 21st century.

The organization hopes to achieve this by concentrating on turtle and tortoise conservation and global outreach. The focus is on living collections and recovery programs for numerous endangered chelonian (turtle, terrapin or tortoise) species worldwide.

The Turtle Survival Center in South Carolina focuses on 32 species of primarily Asian turtles and tortoises endangered due to the pet trade, use as a food source and use in eastern medicinal practices. Some of the species are so rare that they are considered extinct in the wild and are also unrepresented in zoos or aquariums.

The Turtle Survival Center serves as a holding and breeding facility for these animals. The Center’s goal is to create genetically viable populations of these 32 species. To be genetically viable, there must be 90 percent gene diversity for the next 100 years.

Those of us who participated in the South Carolina project learned a lot from the TSA staff. They were very knowledgeable about husbandry and global conservation efforts for the turtles and tortoises in their care.

You can find more information about the Turtle Survival Alliance and how you can help at Follow the Tidewater chapter of AAZK on Facebook.