TSA's Turtle Month Turtle Heroes - Week 4

Welcome to Week 4 of TSA's Turtle Month! Every day, from Earth Day through World Turtle Day® on May 23rd, TSA is highlighting the people who make possible our collaborative programs across the world for the preservation of threatened turtles and tortoises. Without these Turtle Heroes, we could not achieve our vision of Zero Turtle Extinction! For their tireless efforts, we say thank you!

You can help these Turtle Heroes and other turtle conservationists like them continue their important work for the survival of turtles and tortoises by becoming a TSA Donor today!

Monday, May 16th

Meet Madame Fanampihery Lalao Lisanthine, today's TSA Turtle Hero!

Madagascar is home to seven types of tortoise - six of them Critically Endangered. Needless to say, they are in need of heroes. One of those is Madame Fanampihery Lalao Lisanthine, or Madame Lalao as she's known to her colleagues in our TSA-Madagascar program.

The TSA-Madagascar program cares for more than 25,000 tortoises rescued from poachers or seized from illegal trafficking. It's our goal to one day return many of these tortoises to the wild. Until then, the tortoises, spread amongst six facilities, need daily care.

Madame Lalao is of the Mahafaly ethnic group, one of two ethnic groups in southern Madagascar that practice an age-old religious taboo known as "fady." This fady prevents the touching and collection of tortoises. In her region of Madagascar, however, an influx of outsiders, socioeconomic pressures, and drought and famine attribute to the erosion of some societal norms and unique customs, like fady. Now, tortoises are heavily collected from Madame Lalao's home region of Atsimo-Andrefana. So, she decided to help fight the tortoise trafficking occurring around her.

In 2014, in the small town of Ampanihy in the Atsimo-Andrefana Region, TSA built a triage center where tortoises seized from smugglers in the area could receive immediate assistance before being moved on to our larger long-term care facilities. As one of Ampanihy's residents, Madame Lalao volunteered her services to care for the tortoises the center took in.

Madame Lalao's chief contribution to the Ampanihy triage center is caring for the many tortoises that come through the center. As a teacher at the public high school though she performs another crucial role for the center. Madame Lalao is the primary facilitator between TSA and the high school director who provided the land where the triage center is located. Because of this connection, TSA is able to maintain good relationships with both the land owner and Ampanihy authorities, of which her ability to explain the needs of the center cannot be overstated.

Thank you, Madame Lalao, for all you do to provide a safe haven and constant care for rescued tortoises in Madagascar!

Photo: TSA-Madagascar

Tuesday, May 17th

#TurtleTuesday Turtle Hero Twofer!

Today we celebrate Turtle Hero Carol Alvarez!

All the staff at our Turtle Survival Center in Cross, South Carolina, form a special bond with the land, facilities, and animals - especially Carol Alvarez.

Long before there ever was a Turtle Survival Center (TSC), Carol lived next to and worked for the property's former owner, Dr. Sam Seashole. An exotic wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Seashole provided care for a diversity of animals on the property. And Carol was there by his side as the Cross Wildlife Center veterinary technician and clinic manager for 12 years.

In 2013 when TSA acquired the property to bring our dream of an endangered turtle and tortoise assurance colony and breeding facility to life, Carol quickly jumped on board as a volunteer. Her enthusiasm, knowledge, and love for wildlife and her valuable skills in construction and electrical work were abundantly clear. So much so that the TSA soon hired her as the full-time Operations Specialist. The rest is history.

Now Veterinary Keeper, Carol makes a daily positive impact for our thriving collection of more than 500 turtles representing 26 species. Each and every turtle is important to Carol and, when one is in poor health, Carol gives it the proper medical and husbandry care it requires to rebound. But, she's great with more than just turtles.

Carol's knowledge, background, and caring demeanor make her an integral member of the TSC's Internship Program. Under Carol's guidance and supervision, interns learn triage and basic veterinary techniques, and participate in activities including ultrasounds, radiographs, and administering medication.

Thank you, Carol, for all you do to ensure the health and wellbeing of the turtles at our Turtle Survival Center, and for using your diverse skill set to ensure that the TSC remains one of the world’s premiere facilities, now and in the future.

Photo: Jordan Gray

Tuesday, May 17th

#TurtleTuesday Turtle Hero Twofer!

Today we celebrate Turtle Hero Ross Couvillon!

Ross is no stranger to TSA. For years he's been a regular attendee and presenter at the Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. He's one of the few recent biologists to perform research on the Texas Tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri), braving the dense scrub and intense heat of South Texas.

Ross completed his PhD at Texas A&M University-Kingsville in 2017 and shortly thereafter joined the faculty of Wharton County Junior College, just outside of Houston, Texas. There, in Houston, Ross began making his positive impact for turtles as a volunteer with our North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group.

TSA has an ongoing study of the Alligator Snapping Turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) inhabiting the bayous of the Greater Houston metropolitan area. Performing this research takes grit, fearlessness, and, most of all, commitment. Program Director Eric Munscher soon knew he had found that in Ross Couvillon.

In a short span, Ross has become one of the core Alligator Snapping Turtle research volunteers. Ross is a dedicated volunteer, assisting with trap setting, turtle processing, and study site expansion. His fearless attitude and willingness to help out in tough circumstances has been a tremendous help to the project since he joined in 2018.

TSA's study sites in Houston are extremely volatile, susceptible to rapid shifts in water height and velocity, and prone to flooding. Few people would willingly get into the water of one of these study sites under normal circumstances, let alone during flood stage. In the few times that the bayou's waters have suddenly risen during sampling events, Ross volunteered to get in the water to find and retrieve submerged traps, ensuring that no turtle would be subjected to dangerous conditions.

Bittersweet for the Houston team, Ross, his wife, and their newborn child will soon be moving to Monroe, Louisiana. But, we're sure Ross will continue to make an impact on turtle research and conservation in his new home.

Thank you, Ross, for your dedication and the contribution you've made to our Alligator Snapping Turtle conservation efforts in Texas!

Photo: Eric Munscher

Wednesday, May 18th

Meet Fahim Zaman, today's TSA Turtle Hero!

Bangladesh is home to some of the most endangered turtles in the world. Several of them are all but gone from the landscape, others are only rumored to still exist. But, in Bhawal National Park, just north of the country's capital of Dhaka, a captive-breeding facility is producing new generations of turtles and tortoises that are returning to the forests of Bangladesh. One of their heroes is Fahim Zaman.

Fahim leads the operation and management of the Creative Conservation Alliance/TSA/Bangladesh Forest Department Turtle Conservation Center. The nearly six-year-old facility is the only conservation breeding facility for tortoises in Bangladesh, and Fahim has been involved since its inception.

Fahim started as a volunteer for Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA) and in 2019 became part of the nonprofit's staff as a Project Manager. Since his first days with the program, Fahim has played a crucial role in making the dream of reintroducing critically endangered Asian Giant Tortoises (Manouria emys phayrei) to the Chattogram Hill Tracts a reality. In December 2021, ten captive-bred Asian Giant Tortoises were released into a community-managed forest, representing the first rewilding of a Critically Endangered tortoise species in the country. Fahim manages post-release monitoring of the tortoises as well as continued community relations.

In addition to his devotion to Asian Giant Tortoises, Fahim is committed to ensuring a future for the Black Softshell Turtle (Nilssonia nigricans) in Bangladesh. Regarded until recently as Extinct in the Wild, the largest known population of this Critically Endangered species lives at the Shrine of Bayazid Bostami in Chattogram. Fahim and CCA work closely with the temple's Khadems to improve nesting areas for the female turtles and incubate their eggs. Thanks to Fahim's efforts, in just the past few years hundreds of young softshells have hatched at the temple, greatly increasing the species' population.

Despite the multitude of challenges involved in turtle conservation in Bangladesh, Fahim's dedication has helped enable turtle conservation there to advance significantly in a short amount of time.

Thank you, Fahim, for all you do to ensure a future for endangered turtles and tortoises in Bangladesh.

Photo: Kowshikur Rahman

Thursday, May 19th

Meet Darey Caballero, today's TSA Turtle Hero!

Mexico is the second most "turtle rich" country in the world in terms of species diversity. Sixty-five types of tortoise, freshwater and terrestrial turtle, and nesting sea turtle call it home. Despite Mexico's great turtle diversity, little is known of the ecology, natural history, or population status of many of its species. Darey Caballero is a student helping to change that.

TSA's partner Estudiantes Conservando la Naturaleza (ECN), or Students Conserving Nature, is a Mexican nonprofit dedicated to studying the ecology of poorly known or threatened species and to providing academic opportunities to underserved students in rural communities. Darey is one of those benefiting from this program and contributing to research of the turtles in his area of Mexico.

As part of the ECN program, underserved students receive a monthly scholarship to support their school studies while they help survey and monitor turtle populations for ECN. Darey is the program’s longest-running scholarship awardee. For nearly three consecutive years, Darey has dedicated the majority of his weekends to studying the six turtle species that inhabit the region where he lives in southeastern Mexico. He has never missed a single field day.

Darey has become an expert at using telemetry equipment to track turtles, discovering turtle burrows, setting aquatic traps, and taking data and field notes. Darey demonstrates punctuality and responsibility for each assigned task, is kind and supportive of his teammates, and always makes field work fun and enjoyable.

Growing up in a rural community, Darey knows the forest very well, but he continues to be captivated by each new thing he learns, and participates with great enthusiasm and curiosity in each new activity. At 17 years old and in high school, the attributes and skills Darey possesses are sure to lead to a promising future in any field in which he wishes to work.

Thank you, Darey, for your commitment to turtle research in Mexico, and we wish you well in your future!

Photo: Alejandra Monsiváis

Friday, May 20th

Rupali Ghosh (left) and Doris Preininger (right) release Northern River Terrapins affixed with satellite transmitters.

Today we recognize Endangered Species Day by celebrating TSA Turtle Hero Rupali Ghosh!

In the southwest corner of Bangladesh lies a vast matrix of mangrove forests and tidal rivers known as the Sundarbans. Living within it are the few remnants of a once-common turtle, the Northern River Terrapin (Batagur baska). The Northern River Terrapin is now estimated to number fewer than 20 surviving in the wild, and is regarded as one of the most endangered turtles on Earth. There is, however, hope for this species in Bangladesh, and her name is Rupali Ghosh.

TSA's partners Zoo Vienna Schönbrunn, Prokriti O Jibon Foundation, and Bangladesh Forest Department manage two captive breeding and assurance colonies for the Northern River Terrapin in Bangladesh, one in Bhawal National Park and the other at the Karamjal Forest Station in the Sundarbans. Together these facilities constitute the largest population of Northern River Terrapins in the world. Much of that is due to the perseverance of Rupali Ghosh.

Rupali serves as Project Manager for Project Batagur Baska. In 2008, with assistance from Peter Praschag and ASM Rashid, Rupali began scouring village markets and community and private ponds for Northern River Terrapins. Using her expert negotiating skills, Rupali began acquiring terrapins to serve as founders of an in-country breeding program. Within a few years, and after endless hours of searching, negotiating, and retrieving animals, Rupali had secured 22 terrapins. Through careful management and breeding of these founder animals, the captive population in Bangladesh now numbers more than 450.

Rupali's efforts in Bangladesh are a key component of preventing the extinction of the Northern River Terrapin. In 2014, TSA President Rick Hudson said of Rupali, "I use the phrase "force of nature" sparingly to describe someone, but in the case of Rupali, I always use this term. Her grit, determination, and charm have made her the perfect person to spearhead the grassroots efforts that are literally pulling this species back from the brink."

For her tireless work, often under difficult and adverse conditions, we say "thank you," Rupali, for helping to ensure a future for the critically endangered Northern River Terrapin.

Photo: Rupert Kainradl

Saturday, May 21st

Today we celebrate #SuperSaturday TSA Turtle Hero Tint Lwin!

The TSA/ Wildlife Conservation Society/ Myanmar Forest Department program is one of our most successful. It's the driving force bringing back from the edge of extinction species like the Burmese Star Tortoise (Geochelone elegans) and Burmese Roofed Turtle (Batagur trivittata). Through carefully managed breeding at several captive assurance colonies, there are once again thousands of these animals in Myanmar. And because of those breeding efforts, both species are returning to the wild. These achievements would not be possible without the untiring dedication of Dr. Tint Lwin.

Tint Lwin is Myanmar's foremost exotic animal veterinarian, with vast experience in zoo medicine. Tint was employed by the Myanmar government from 1980 to 2012, where he last served as lead veterinarian at the Yadanabon Zoo before being hired by TSA/WCS in 2012. Since then, Tint has been responsible for all veterinary aspects of our joint program's mission, including caring for thousands of turtles and tortoises in the five assurance colonies in Myanmar, and screening turtles selected for wild reintroduction for health issues or infectious disease.

For the Burmese Roofed Turtle, a species formerly presumed extinct, Tint has been part of the species' recovery effort ever since its 2002 rediscovery. Under the guidance of Dr. Gerald Kuchling, an assurance colony was quickly established at the Yadanabon Zoological Garden in Mandalay using a handful of turtles confiscated from fishermen and translocated from pagoda ponds. Tint cared for each of these turtles with great devotion knowing they represented some of the last of their kind.

Fast forward 20 years and Dr. Lwin now oversees the healthcare of nearly 1,300 captive Burmese Roofed Turtles. The breeding program for the Burmese Roofed Turtle at the Yadanabon Zoo is now the most successful in the world, producing more than 200 hatchlings annually. Add to this the hatchlings now being produced at our other assurance colonies and the captive population of Burmese Roofed Turtles in Myanmar is thriving. Much of that success is credit to Tint Lwin.

Thank you, Tint, for ensuring a future for the critically endangered turtles of Myanmar!

Photo: Kalyar Platt

Saturday, May 21st

Today we celebrate #SuperSaturday TSA Turtle Hero Mauricio Correa!

For those of you who do not know Mauricio, you are likely to know his photographs. A gifted field biologist and photographer, Mauricio's stunning photos and video footage of Giant South American River Turtles (Podocnemis expansa) along the Meta River in Colombia have captured the attention of countless turtle lovers across the world.

The Giant South American River Turtle, known colloquially in Colombia as Charapa, is a Critically Endangered species native to the Amazon and Orinoco river drainages of South America. The largest of South America's freshwater turtles, the Charapa has suffered tremendous population declines due in large part to poaching for their meat and eggs. Once numbering in the tens of millions, the continent's population of Charapas now numbers in the hundreds of thousands. In Colombia, the TSA/ Wildlife Conservation Society/ Fundación  Omacha partnership, Proyecto Vida Silvestre, is having a big impact for this giant turtle - thanks to turtle heroes like Mauricio.

For the last four years, Mauricio, who has an extensive background in working with Colombian turtles, has been an integral component of Proyecto Vida Silvestre as a member of the TSA/WCS turtle team. His work as an adept biologist, community liaison, and photographer contributes to the success of the conservation activities for this program. Mauricio generates quality field data and ensures continuity in the commitment of volunteers from the village of Santa María de la Virgen who participate in the program as beach wardens.

As beach wardens, these community participants protect local beaches, nesting female turtles, and their eggs. Due in part to Mauricio's contributions, the community-based program has, in just the last few years, protected thousands of nesting females and their nests, resulting in nearly 200,000 eggs hatching!

Thank you, Mauricio, for all do to ensure a future for the critically endangered Giant South American River Turtle and other at-risk Colombian species!

Photo: Mauricio Correa

Sunday, May 22nd

Celebrate International Day for Biological Diversity with Illumina®, today‚Äôs TSA Turtle Hero!

The world's biological diversity is at great risk. From Birmingham, Alabama, to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, populations of species and their habitats are rapidly disappearing. For turtles and tortoises, unrelenting habitat destruction, road mortality, climate change, and collection for the international pet and food trades, to name a few, pose existential threats to their survival. Working together we can change that.

In 2021 Turtle Survival Alliance partnered with Illumina®, a biotechnology company whose goal is to apply innovative technologies to the analysis of genetic variation and biological function to develop better tools to genetically map turtle populations. Using these technologies, together we can return turtles and tortoises confiscated from illegal trade to their native habitats.

Nearly 20% of global turtle diversity lies within the United States, making it an ideal hub for trafficking. The Eastern United States in particular is home to numerous species coveted by the pet trade, including Box, Wood, Spotted, Mud, Musk, Alligator Snapping and Bog turtles and Diamondback Terrapins. U.S. authorities confiscate hundreds to thousands of trafficked turtles from unknown locations every year. The loss of these turtles from the habitats they call home poses not only a risk to population declines, it contributes to the loss of biodiversity.

Working in collaboration with the TSA/Association of Zoos and Aquariums Saving Animals from Extinction: American Turtles program and Tangled Bank Conservation, Illumina® contributed MiSeq™ and iSeq™ platforms and reagents for fast processing of gene samples from confiscated, wild-caught turtles. This next generation technology will enable TSA and our federal and state agency partners to return potentially thousands of turtles to their original homes in the wild each year.

Thank you, Illumina®, for your contribution toward helping return wild-caught turtles to their rightful place in the wild.

Photo: Aubrey Buzek/FWS

Sunday, May 22nd

Celebrate International Day for Biological Diversity with Tom Pop, today's TSA Turtle Hero!

Did you know that the tiny country of Belize ranks #3 in the world in terms of biodiversity relative to its size? That means there are a lot of rare plants and animals packed into this Central American country. A unique, yet critically endangered part of that biodiversity is the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii), locally known as Hicatee. In fact, Belize is the last stronghold for this rare turtle species. Lucky for it, Belize is also home to one of the Hicatee's strongest supporters in turtle hero Thomas "Tom" Pop.

The TSA and our partner Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) are in our 12th year of conservation efforts for this endangered turtle, and Tom has been a part since its beginnings.

Tom is the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC) Manager, located in BFREE’s 1,153-acre biological field station and reserve in the foothills of the Maya Mountains. As HCRC Manger, Tom Pop is responsible for the care of more than 400 Hicatee ranging in size from hatchling to adult. He's also in charge of the breeding program which produces roughly 200 eggs per year, and hatchlings of which are now being returned to the wild to help bolster the regional population.

The natural history and life cycle of the Central American River Turtle is little understood. It's primarily nocturnal, completely herbivorous, and fully aquatic, only surfacing to breathe or forage on overhanging vegetation or fruits. It rarely leaves the water, even to lay its eggs. The species has a limited range and prefers the deep, dark waters of rivers and lagoons that are often filled with crocodiles. All these factors make studying the species a job for only the most dedicated individuals - like Tom.

Aside from managing the captive assurance colony at the HCRC, Tom participates as a field leader when teams conduct field work for Hicatee. Due to his excellent navigation skills, experience with previous population surveys, and unique understanding of the species, Tom is able to accurately identify locations where Hicatee exist.

Curiosity and discovery are the keys to Tom's success managing the Hicatee. His innate curiosity drives him to learn as much as possible about the animal and its habitat. Over the eight years that he's managed the facility and participated in field work, Tom has become a premier expert and field biologist for the species. He eagerly works with and has trained both local and international field biologists. Tom is delighted when someone can add to his knowledge base, and is happiest when someone surprises him with something he didn't first notice himself.

Tom is equally a willing student and exceptional teacher. He moves between the roles easily and whenever needed. He has mentored Belizeans and people from abroad. In this way, he has contributed to a much greater understanding of the wildlife, forests, and rivers of Belize, which has in turn aided in their conservation.

Thank you, Tom, for all you to do ensure a future for the Central American River Turtle, educate others on their natural history and habitat, and for being a hero for Belize's biodiversity.

Photo: Heather Barrett

World Turtle Day®, Monday, May 23rd

Please join us in wishing a Happy Birthday to World Turtle Day® founder and TSA Turtle Hero, Susan Tellem!

An animal lover since birth, Susan Tellem was a cat rescuer serving on a large Los Angeles cat sanctuary board of directors when she was in her early 20s. After graduating from college with a bachelor’s in nursing, she married and had a wonderful bunch of kids. While working in healthcare, however, through a stroke of luck, she was offered a job in public relations and grew her company to the largest health care PR firm west of the Mississippi.

In 1990 Susan and her husband, Marshall Thompson, were shopping at a pet store (they had dogs, cats, a rabbit, snakes, mice, birds and other pets) and saw two Russian tortoises. Knowing nothing about them, but fascinated, they purchased both and called them Peggy and Sue. Susan and Marshall started doing research and discovered that many people knew nothing about keeping turtles. They decided, with Susan’s background in nursing and PR, they should launch an online knowledge base for people to get information about these wonderful creatures. American Tortoise Rescue (ATR) (tortoise.com) was born and has existed as the nation’s longest running turtle and tortoise sanctuary.

The nonprofit organization has rehomed more than 4,000 turtles and tortoises. An all-volunteer-based organization, ATR uses every penny contributed for the care and feeding of the more than 100 turtles and tortoises in their care. Several years after the rescue formed, they became a nonprofit and the first national turtle and tortoise rescue. People began to ship them animals and, in 1997, they decided to move to Malibu, CA where they could have land and create a sanctuary.

In 2000, the pair created World Turtle Day® celebrated every year on May 23rd. Its purpose is to educate the world’s peoples about why saving turtles and tortoises from extinction is critical. This observance is now “shellebrated” in virtually every country around the globe. More information is at www.worldturtleday.org.

Susan’s experience with and love of turtles and tortoises and background in PR, she has worked on campaigns focused on encouraging humans not to remove these animals from the wild and to celebrate the existence of these beautiful creatures. She also helps and supports the many tortoise and turtle rescues now in the U.S. and around the world. For more than 20 years, Susan and her husband also have been working hard to ban the live food markets around the world where turtles are sold alive for food.

Sadly, a major fire destroyed her home and the sanctuary a few years ago. The turtles were evacuated and were safe. Because the turtle hospital was also lost, but now rebuilt, the pair have stopped rescuing healthy turtles and tortoises and only take in unadoptable animals with special needs. Susan also spends time helping people throughout the country find a way to rehome their animals so they do not end up at an animal shelter.

Thank you, Susan, for all you do to care for and promote turtle conservation across the world, and HAPPY BIRTHDAY!