Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Breaking Ground on Turtle Survival Alliance’s -- Turtle Survival Center – via Herp Digest

by Cris Hagen, Rick Hudson and Scott Davis, Published in TSA’s 2013 Annual Magazine  Full magazine, with photos, can be found at 
In February 2011, the TSA Board of Directors made the boldest move in the organization’s eleven-year history when they voted to purchase a 50-acre property in coastal South Carolina to be developed as a Turtle Survival Center (TSC). A former crocodilian and wildlife rehab facility, the site was perfect for maintaining assurance colonies of endangered turtles and tortoises.  
In the end, the decision wasn’t difficult: the Board felt it had no other choice if the TSA was to maintain its commitment to zero turtle extinctions. It has become very clear that in situ efforts to protect wild populations are inadequate to ensuring the survival of many turtle species. Ex situ captive populations are necessary, making the TSC vital to our mission. The decision was made easier by Board Member Pat Koval’s commitment to put up half of the asking price for the land. 
From the outset, we chose to base the TSC Collection Plan on the most up-to-date data available on Asian turtles and tortoises, including key workshops held in Singapore and China in 2011. Seven species of tortoises and 20 species of freshwater turtles—primarily Asian—were carefully selected for inclusion, based on the critical need of captive breeding for their survival. Four of the tortoise species and 17 of the turtle species are ranked by the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered. Nine species are identified on the list of The World’s 25+ Most Endangered Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles, as released by the Turtle Conservation Coalition in 2011.  These numbers alone speak convincingly and hopefully to the TSC’s eventual impact on the survival of many of the most endangered chelonians in the world.
At our annual conference in Tucson in August 2012, the TSA officially announced its plans for the TSC and embarked upon an ambitious capital campaign, targeting $1.6 million over five years. That figure included the $400,000 purchase price, $300,000 for construction and renovation, and $900,000 for facility operations through 2016. 
After Pat’s generous jump start, the campaign received its second major “shot in the arm” when San Diego Zoo Global put up a $100,000 challenge, contingent on matches by the zoo community. The TSA set up a booth in the exhibit hall at the American Zoo Association (AZA) meeting in Phoenix, AZ in September 2012 and began seeking matches for San Diego’s generous challenge. We not only met but exceeded the San Diego Zoo challenge. To date, 38 AZA zoos and aquariums have pledged support for the TSC; that includes some very important multi-year commitments. At the time of this writing we have raised $935,195 toward our goal of $1.6 million, with zoos contributing $406,150 of that total.
The TSA officially closed on the TSC property on 21 January 2013, bringing to fruition nearly two years of discussion, fundraising, and facilities planning. Work began immediately to prepare the facility for operation. The first steps were to clean up the property, retrofit the existing facilities, and start construction. The first TSC volunteer work weekend was held on 9-10 February, and it was a huge success with enthusiastic support by loyal TSA members. Since then, there have been other volunteer work events, a veterinary team weekend to welcome the first influx of turtles, an AZA directors’ open house and dinner, a TSA Board of Directors meeting, various small and large construction projects, as well as the arrival of visitors from around the globe. 
Cris Hagen, TSA’s Director of Animal Management, was the first person to permanently move to the TSC on 26 March, leaving a position that he had held for the past 11 years at the Savannah River Ecology Lab (SREL). Next in line to relocate to the TSC were 300 individuals of priority turtle species maintained at SREL—a move of 120 miles across the state. But before this mass chelonian relocation could take place, facility renovations and construction had to be completed to provide the highest quality husbandry and security. Although the TSC is still a work in progress, we moved 91 turtles of 17 species from SREL to the TSC by the end of June.
The TSC property operated as a wildlife center under the direction of Dr. Sam Seashole for many years prior to the TSA purchase. Therefore, we spent most of the first two months cleaning and reorganizing the center. Trips to the county waste disposal facility were frequent as we removed bird and mammal holding facilities and renovated barn stalls to become turtle holding areas.
In spite of extremely rainy weather throughout the first six months of construction, we have made significant progress since our start on March 27th. Construction of an outdoor complex for forest and semi-aquatic species was initiated by Dave Manser (Ponds and Plants) and is nearing completion as of this writing. A 20’ x 40’ tortoise building and a 20’ x 50’ quarantine building have been erected. New ponds have been dug to accommodate F1 groups that are produced at the Center over the coming years. Drainage fields have been created to handle water usage, and hundreds of feet of plumbing and electrical wire have been buried. An 11-acre area was encircled by an eight foot high, electrified perimeter security fence. 
During the remainder of 2013, we plan to complete two forested habitat complexes, finish out the interiors of the tortoise and quarantine buildings, erect several greenhouses, renovate one of the barn stalls into a kitchen and food preparation area, and install additional layers of security.
As facilities have been completed, turtles have begun being relocated to the TSC. As turtles arrive at the Center, they receive health assessments; blood is drawn and banked for DNA testing; animals are given transponders; swabs and fecals are taken to conduct disease testing; and the animals are placed in quarantine. This work is made easier by the fact that the TSC facility came with a full clinic, including gas anesthesia, a portable x-ray unit, a blood chemistry analyzer, and a full surgical suite. The veterinary work is overseen by the TSC’s veterinary advisory group, which includes Dr. Bonnie Raphael (WCS-Bronx), Dr. Keith Benson (Riverbanks Zoo), Dr. Sam Rivera (Zoo Atlanta), Dr. Charles Innis (New England Aquarium), Dr. Joseph Flanagan (Houston Zoo). Thanks to their help, we are well on our way to developing a complete set of husbandry and veterinary protocols and to ensuring the highest standard of care for TSC animals. 
By mid-June we had a full staff at the TSC. Luke Wyrwich is our Lead Keeper and came to us from Zoo Atlanta where he managed their chelonian collection for the past five years. He brings a strong background in construction and maintenance, as well as first-hand husbandry experience with a number of the target species at the Center. Luke is currently tackling the numerous construction projects that are underway. 
Sheena Koeth is our Veterinary Care Manager and comes to us from the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo with thirteen years of experience working as a veterinary technician. She will be the primary point person for all veterinary needs under the guidance of the TSC’s veterinary advisory group. She is also responsible for implementing our record keeping system. 
Theresa Stratmann began a two-month internship in late May and spent eight weeks with us this summer before starting her graduate degree at Clemson University. Theresa is a recent graduate of the University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology and has several years experience caring for TSC target species while volunteering at the Riverbanks Zoo. 
The TSC staff quickly adapted to working well together in a rural area under difficult weather conditions. The team faces the enormous challenge of bringing the TSC on line while preparing to accommodate a diverse collection of highly endangered chelonians. The pressures are daunting and every day brings new and unexpected trials. Recordkeeping systems must be developed, protocols written, and routines and schedules established. Fortunately, the team brings a diverse set of knowledge and skills to the TSC, and their backgrounds have prepared them well for meeting the challenges of developing and operating a professional turtle center. 
Two TSC work weekends in February and March were organized for TSA members to come out and volunteer their time and energy to clean up the site in preparation for construction. The hard work and dedication of TSA members has always been a key to our success and we were delighted by the great group of volunteers who showed up to help. Dumpsters were filled and hauled off, trees removed, trenches dug, and several tons of gravel removed from existing ponds during two days of backbreaking work. Hardware cloth was installed at the base of chain link fences surrounding existing ponds, and old pasture fencing was torn down. We are very appreciative of all the hard work volunteers contributed to the development of the Center. Jay Allen (Aquarium Innovations), Kathy Vause (Riverbanks Zoo and Garden), and Roman Fletcher deserve special thanks for repeat visits and sustained commitment to the project. Kurt Buhlmann, Whit Gibbons, Judy Greene, Tracey Tuberville, Brian Metts, and Sean Poppy all contributed time and energy to transitioning turtles from SREL to the TSC. 
On 6 April the TSC veterinary advisory group, along with veterinary technician Sheena Koeth, arrived for a hectic fun-filled weekend with Cris Hagen processing the first wave of arriving turtles. The vet team spent the weekend collecting quarantine samples and conducting health assessments on the first 47 turtles transferred from the SREL collection. These collaborative efforts are very important for the development of the TSC, and represent the first steps in establishing effective quarantine and disease prevention protocols for the Center. 
The TSA is grateful for the expert care provided by the vet team. However, their dedication was not limited to veterinary medicine. Dr. Innis was the first to arrive and within minutes was mired in mud, shoveling wet cement to build walls for a forest enclosure. Dr. Flanagan baked home-made bread for the group every morning. The camaraderie was a true pleasure, and the seven people present shared in a significant occasion: the release of the first turtles into the outdoor ponds: 1.1 Batagur borneoensis, 1.3 Orlitia borneensis, 11.14 Mauremys annamensis, 5.3 Mauremys nigricans, and 1.1 Geoclemys hamiltoni.  On a poignant note, some of the first arrivals to the TSC were a group of three Burmese Mountain Tortoises and a pair of Sulawesi Forest Turtles, brought there as a result of the untimely passing of Dr. Greg Fleming.
No sooner had the vet team departed the TSC than we began preparations for another arrival. On Thursday evening, 11 April, the TSC hosted over 40 delegates from the American Zoo Association mid-year conference in Charleston, SC. The group, which included directors, curators and AZA staff, spent two hours touring the facility and learning about our vision for the Center. That was followed by a southern BBQ dinner. The next night the TSA Board of Directors arrived for their annual board meeting, and they were treated to a traditional Low Country Boil prepared by Thomas Rainwater and Cris Hagen
Despite the chaos, ongoing clean up and construction, we still found time to host a few turtle biologists. Maurice Rodrigues from the Turtle Conservancy stopped by in early April. Dick Vogt was conducting research in Charleston, SC, and came to the Center in late April. Nguyen Thu Thuy, Turtle Program Coordinator for the Asian Turtle Program, based in Hanoi, Vietnam, spent 2 days at the Center at the end of May. Bernard Devaux and Franck Bonin from SOPTOM in France, as well as Uzma Noureen from WWF Pakistan, spent an afternoon with us in early June. 
As much as we enjoyed showing off the TSC, we are discouraging further visits until heavy construction is complete and the bulk of the TSA collection has been settled in to their new homes. We look forward to the day when the Center no longer looks like a muddy construction site!
If there is a single group of turtles that stands to benefit most from the TSC, and which should be considered emblematic of the Center, it is the Asian Box Turtles (genus Cuora). The most imperiled group of turtles in the world, 12 of the 13 recognized Cuora species are considered critically endangered. Several are extinct in the wild, and others are biologically extinct, meaning their populations have reached such low numbers that they are no longer viable. Collecting pressures on the remaining wild stocks are so intense that their future rests solely on captive populations. The TSC was founded specifically for species in such dire straits.
Over the past year the TSC has acquired several groups of priority Cuora species through breeding loan agreements and donations. We were incredibly fortunate to be able to acquire founder adult specimens of C. aurocapitata, C. bouretti, C. mccordi, C. pani, C. picturata, and C. zhoui—most of which are presently unrepresented in the global captive population. These turtles will form the nucleus of important breeding programs at the TSC, and we expect these groups to thrive and reproduce well here in the moderate coastal climate of South Carolina.  Although the low country climate and topography has presented challenges to our construction projects, it is an excellent match to the climate of southern China where many of these species occur. Building highly secure and functional habitats for these species is our leading priority. 
The decision to acquire and develop the Turtle Survival Center was a bold move, and certainly one with risks. The successful launch of the Center certainly bodes well. But our overwhelming challenge over the next five years will be to continue the momentum behind the TSC, while simultaneously sustaining consistent funding for our many field programs—both efforts are vital to our mission. We have full time staff in Madagascar (2), Burma (2), India (6) and Colombia (1) that we cannot afford to lose if we are to meet growing threats and obligations. 
The TSA Board and our core donors have proven their dedication to our mission time and again, and have always come through. They have now made a leap of faith, and shown vision in their simultaneous commitment to maintaining our field programs while also constructing the TSC. We trust that one day soon—when the TSC is firmly established and a handful of critical species have gained a foothold on a secure future—that our current financial travails will be but a distant memory. Then we will look back with pride and know that our bold gamble paid off. 
Until that day, please join the Turtle Survival Alliance at http://www.turtlesurvival.org/in helping make the TSC and our field programs thrive, for the betterment of chelonians around the planet.

No comments:

Post a Comment

You only need to enter your comment once! Comments will appear once they have been moderated. This is so as to stop the would-be comedian who has been spamming the comments here with inane and often offensive remarks. You know who you are!

Related Posts with Thumbnails