Thu, Jul 05, 2012 - Page 5 News List

Extinction prompts conservation

SILVER LINING:The end of a subspecies of tortoise may save others from extinction, as seen in the Taipei Zoo’s reinvigorated effort to save the Burmese star tortoise

Staff writer, with CNA

A Burmese star tortoise at Taipei Zoo is shown in an undated photo. The zoo initiated conservation work to save the endangered species in the 1990s and plans to release the first group back into the wild in a Burmese conservation area next year.

Photo courtesy of Taipei Zoo

The Taipei Zoo said it is working with global partners to prevent an endangered tortoise species from sharing the same fate as Lonesome George, the last of a subspecies of tortoise that died last week on June 24.

“Lonesome George is in the past now. The pressing issue is to prevent the tragedy from happening again to other tortoises threatened with extinction,” said Chang Ming-hsiung (張明雄), chief executive of the zoo’s Conservation and Research Center.

Lonesome George, a Pinta Island giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii) that lived in the Galapagos Islands, died at the age of 100, prompting worldwide mourning over the beloved conservation icon.

The subspecies is believed to have become extinct because Lonesome George, which had been kept in captivity in Galapagos National Park since the 1970s, failed to leave any offspring.

Although it caused consternation among conservationists, the tortoise’s demise may help other species survive.

It has prompted the Taipei Zoo to reflect on its conservation strategy for the endangered Burmese star tortoise. The zoo has 19 of the turtles, which were found in the 1990s in Taiwan after being illegally smuggled into the country for the pet or medicine markets.

That is 6.3 percent of the estimated global population of 300 for a species ranked 11th in the Turtle Conservation Coalition’s report last year entitled Turtles In Trouble: The World’s Top 25+ Endangered Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles.

Speaking at an international workshop the zoo held last week to discuss ways of restoring tortoise populations, Donal Boyer, curator of herpetology at the Bronx Zoo in New York, said the case of Lonesome George pointed to the need for conservationists to work more closely together to establish captive breeding programs.

Chang agreed, saying that a successful partnership would mean frequent exchanges of information on details such as the reptile’s habits and behavior as well as new high-tech breeding methods.

Chang cited as an example the time when the Taipei Zoo contacted the Behler Chelonian Conservation Center in California with the help of the Bronx Zoo in 2006 for advice on lifting the hatchling survival rate of its Burmese star tortoises.

As a result of the partnership, the survival rate improved from under 10 percent to 70 percent.

Another benefit of a strong network is the exchange of robust genetic diversity to increase the group’s chances for survival, said Gerald Kuchling, a conservationist at the University of West Australia.

Chang said these multinational efforts are aimed at creating “recovery houses” for the tortoises, natural sanctuaries that imitate the animal’s original habitat.

He said the Taipei Zoo’s next step would be to work with the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society to prepare its Burmese star tortoises for reintroduction into such recovery houses in Myanmar next year.

However, the ultimate goal is to restore natural habitats so the creatures can be released into the wild.

“The Burmese star tortoises deserve to live in their original habitats in Myanmar,” Chang said. “They deserve to live in the wild instead of dying alone in zoos.”

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