World Turtle Day® - #23DaysOfTurtles

World Turtle Day®, established by American Tortoise Rescue in 2000, is now observed by the turtle conservation community around the globe each year on May 23rd. On this day, we celebrate the diversity, beauty, and preservation of the 359 living species of turtles, tortoises, sea turtles, and terrapins found on Earth.

From the Arakan Forest Turtle to the Yellow-headed Box Turtle, this May, we are highlighting some of the most threatened turtles and tortoises that TSA protects through our conservation programs. Learn about these species and the actions TSA and our partners are taking to save them through our #23DaysOfTurtles. Together, we will create a brighter future for turtles and tortoises!

Double your impact this month! Donate to support conservation of these highly threatened turtles and tortoises and others like them!

Arakan Forest Turtle

The Arakan Forest Turtle (Heosemys depressa) is native to tropical forests of the Rhakine and Chin Hills of Myanmar and the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. For years, this turtle was considered lost to science. After 86 years of obscurity, in 1994, it was rediscovered in an Asian food market. In the three decades since, researchers have documented wild populations and established assurance colonies.

The TSA and our partners Wildlife Conservation Society, Myanmar Forest Department, Creative Conservation Alliance, and Bangladesh Forest Department maintain captive assurance colonies of Arakan Forest Turtle in their native Myanmar and Bangladesh, as well as at our Turtle Survival Center in South Carolina.

Photo: Steven Ives

Big-headed Turtle

The Big-headed Turtle (Platysternon megacephalum) is native to tropical and subtropical montane forest streams in Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. This unique turtle is aptly named due to its enlarged skull, featuring a large, sharp, powerful beak. The species evolved this cranial structure to crush the shells of its favorite prey item: mollusks. Another adaptive feature is its muscular prehensile tail, which aids it in climbing, stabilizing, and mating.

The TSA, with our partners and our partners Wildlife Conservation Society and Myanmar Forest Department, maintains assurance colonies of the Big-headed Turtle in their native Myanmar, as well as at the Turtle Survival Center in South Carolina. We are also called upon to provide rapid response and long-term care for Big-headed Turtles rescued from illegal trafficking.

Photo: Clinton Doak

Black Softshell Turtle

The Black Softshell Turtle (Nilssonia nigricans) is a Critically Endangered species native to Bangladesh and India. It was, until recently, considered Extinct in the Wild on account of no known wild populations. Within the last 15 years, however, a few small remnant populations have been discovered inhabiting the Brahmaputra River basin of Northeast India.

The majority of this species' population resides amongst temple ponds in its two native countries, most notably Nagsankar Temple in Assam, India, and the Shrine of Bayazid Bostami in Chattogram, Bangladesh. There, the turtles are considered sacred. At these temples, the TSA and our partners collaborate to increase the population of the Black Softshell through egg collection and incubation, and headstarting. Last year bore witness to the first-ever wild release of headstarted Black Softshells from Nagsankar Temple.

Photo: Shailendra Singh

Bog Turtle

The Bog Turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) is one of the smallest turtles on Earth, rarely exceeding four inches in length. Equally as imperiled as the turtle is their habitat. Although named the Bog Turtle, this turtle is truly an inhabitant of fens, another type of wetland, and wet sedge meadows. These delicate ecosystems are severely threatened throughout the turtle’s range, from upstate New York to northern Georgia.

In North Carolina, the TSA supports the work of Mike Knoerr and JJ Apodaca (Tangled Bank Conservation) through the Bern Tryon Southern Bog Turtle Fund. There, they maintain fencing around nesting areas to safeguard them from predators. They also locate Bog Turtle nests and cover them with cages to prevent predation of the eggs. Once the eggs hatch and the tiny turtles are counted, weighed, and measured, they are released back into the fen. Where once the vast majority of nests were destroyed, now, for the first time in years, hatchlings are making it back into the wild.

Photo: Mike Knoerr

Bourret’s Box Turtle

If it looks like this Bourret's Box Turtle is smiling, it's for good reason: in 2020, the assurance colony of this species at TSA’s Turtle Survival Center in Cross, South Carolina produced more hatchlings than ever before!

Native to Vietnam and Laos, the Bourret's Box Turtle (Cuora bourreti) has suffered tremendous population declines due to over-collection for food, traditional medicine, and pet trades, as well as deforestation. Now, it's considered Critically Endangered. As wild populations cling to existence, breeding programs like that at the Turtle Survival Center give this species hope for survival.

Do you want to know how many hatchling Bourret's Box Turtles we produced this year? Become a TSA Member today and receive our 2020 annual publication, Turtle Survival, delivered straight to your door!

Photo: Cris Hagen

Burmese Roofed Turtle

The Burmese Roofed Turtle (Batagur trivittata) is considered one of the most endangered turtles in the world. Once common in the Ayeyarwady-Chindwin River system of Myanmar, this large river turtle was believed to be extinct for the better part of a century until its rediscovery in 2002. Today, an estimated five wild adult females are known to exist. But, through a comprehensive program in their native country, the Burmese Roofed Turtle is being brought back from the brink.

The TSA and our partners Wildlife Conservation Society, Myanmar Forest Department, and Yadanarbon Zoo maintain multiple assurance colonies in Myanmar as part of a multi-pronged conservation recovery effort. The most important component of this joint recovery program is the protection of the few remaining nesting beaches on the upper Chindwin River and collection of eggs for incubation. Assurance colony staff members oversee “growing out” hatchlings from these nests at various facilities with the goal of releasing the turtles, increasing the numbers of nesting females, re-establishing functional populations of this species in the wild, and maintaining species assurance. To date, we and our partners have released 148 turtles into the wild and the captive assurance population numbers over 1,000.

Photo: Brian Horne

Burmese Star Tortoise

The Burmese Star Tortoise (Geochelone platynota) is a flagship species of our collaborative Myanmar program with Wildlife Conservation Society and Myanmar Forest Department. The centerpiece of our species recovery effort continues to be the reintroduction of captive bred, headstarted tortoises. Functionally extinct in the wild by the mid-2000s, now, thanks to steadfast dedication, several thousand tortoises once again roam the forests and wooded savannas of Myanmar's Central Dry Zone.

Unremitting demand from foreign pet markets drove the star tortoise to near wild extinction. To save the species and restore its wild presence, 175 tortoises seized from wildlife traffickers served as the nexus for a captive-breeding recovery effort. A decade and a half later, TSA and our partners have produced 16,000 star tortoises at several assurance colonies in their native Myanmar. Beginning in 2013, we began releasing headstarted tortoises back into the wild in protected sanctuaries. Now, these tortoises are reproducing on their own and giving their species another chance at a life in the wild.

Photo: Kalyar Platt

Central American River Turtle

The Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii), also known as Hicatee, is the last remaining representative of the turtle family Dermatemydidae. This unique species is entirely aquatic, inhabiting rivers, lagoons, and other large wetlands of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. It is so adapted to living in water that it can hardly move on land or even hold its head up when out of the water. In fact, the Hicatee has evolved a highly adaptive aquatic breathing mechanism, in which it draws water into its mouth, where oxygen diffuses across its larynx and into the respiratory tract, before it expels water through its nose. Therefore, it only needs to surface for oxygen periodically.

Despite persisting for tens of millions of years, the Central American River Turtle is now regarded as Critically Endangered primarily due to hunting. Over-collection has wiped out populations in many areas of their range, and decimated those still clinging to existence. The population of this species in Mexico has been nearly eliminated, and those of Guatemala are largely unknown. Belize continues to be the strongest remaining foothold for the species; however, despite its protected status there, it is still poached for its meat.

TSA, in collaboration with our partner Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE BZ), maintains an assurance colony of this species at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC). BFREE not only maintains this assurance colony, but also hosts visiting research scientists and students who study this species in an effort to better conserve them, partakes in educational outreach in Belize and abroad, and creates awareness campaigns to promote their survival. In 2020, we performed the first-ever release of headstarted turtles from the HCRC, 165 in all.

Photo: Donald McKnight

Dahl’s Toad-headed Turtle

The Dahl's Toad-headed Turtle (Mesoclemmys dahli), is a critically endangered species from Colombia and a high-priority species for our TSA/WCS Colombia program. The range of the Dahl's Toad-headed Turtle lies completely within Colombia's tropical dry forest, one of the most imperiled ecosystems in the country. Deforestation, primarily for agricultural and livestock operations, has left less than 9% of this habitat intact. Now, the Dahl’s Toad-headed Turtles exists there only in small, fragmented populations.

In December 2019, the TSA and our partners Wildlife Conservation Society and Rainforest Trust purchased hundreds of acres in Colombia for the country's first-ever reserve created for a turtle. Named for its primary benefactor, the Dahl's Toad-headed Turtle or "Carranchina Turtle," the protected area now known as La Carranchina Natural Reserve acts as a lifeline. It effectively protects one of Colombia's last substantial and genetically diverse populations of this endemic species. The reserve also gives our collaborative the opportunity to work with the local community to restore and actively manage habitat for the toad-headed and other native species of turtle and tortoise.

In 2020, with support from Fundación Santo Domingo, TSA and our partners began restoration efforts for La Carranchina's tropical dry forest. This year, we are continuing that effort and more!

Photo: Guido Miranda

Indian Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle

The Indian Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle (Chitra indica) is one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world. This peculiar-looking aquatic turtle inhabits large river basins of Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Once considered a common species, its population has declined due to humans harvesting them for food, pollution, destruction of sand bars, and other modification of its riverine habitat. Now, they are considered Endangered.

In northern India this species is highly reliant on the Ganges River and its tributaries, the Yamuna and Ghaghra, for its long-term survival there. Unfortunately, the Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Yet, turtles still persist in its waters, and the TSA India Program—in collaboration with the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) (or Namami Gange Project), the Ministry of Water Resources, and the Ganga River Rejuvenation—intends to keep it that way.

In 2020, with the assistance of the TSA India Program, the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department’s Endangered Species Project resumed their conservation efforts for the Indian Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle. Together, we relocated eggs from two vulnerable nests along the Yamuna and Ghaghra Rivers to the Kukrail Gharial and Turtle Rehabilitation Center (KGTRC). There, they incubated safely and naturally in a sand hatchery. In all, 220 of the eggs hatched!

Photo: Shailendra Singh

Indochinese Box Turtle

The Indochinese Box Turtle (Cuora galbinifrons) is native to tropical and subtropical forests of Vietnam, Laos, and southern China. Like other species of the region, it was once common. But, as has become commonplace for turtle species of Southeast Asia, over-exploitation for food, traditional medicine, and pet trades, as well as deforestation has rendered wild populations Critically Endangered.

While wild populations continue to plummet in their native habitats, this species does quite well at our Turtle Survival Center (TSC) in subtropical South Carolina. The TSC is home to an extensive breeding assurance colony of Indochinese Box Turtles. Though delicate to maintain in captivity, each year we continue to see increased breeding success with this species. In 2020, we hatched 14 of these gems. With two females currently laden with eggs, we are looking forward to another successful year reproducing the Indochinese Box Turtle.

Photo: Cris Hagen

Magdalena River Turtle

The Magdalena River Turtle (Podocnemis lewyana) is a Critically Endangered species endemic to Colombia. It is found only in the Sin√∫ and Magdalena river drainages. In the Sin√∫ River, this species is most imperiled by hydroelectric damming. Water releases from the dams inundate nesting beaches, wiping out entire generations of new turtles.

To save the Magdalena River Turtle from extinction in the Sin√∫, in 2013, the TSA/ WCSWCS Colombia turtle program, with our community partner Tortugas del Sin√∫, launched a restorative program for the turtle. This program creates and maintains artificial nesting beaches, fences beaches from cattle intrusion, protects nests, and translocates vulnerable nests for artificial incubation. It is only through these conservation efforts that the Sin√∫ River population is able to persist.

In 2020, this Critically Endangered turtle with a dwindling wild population received an almost unparalleled boost of successful hatching in a stretch of the Sinú River from Cotoca Arriba to El Campano. That’s a big deal for the Magdalena River Turtle whose wild population there is estimated to be less than 300 individuals. In all we hatched and released a record 2,296 Magdalena River Turtles!

We thank EcoEconbiba, Disney Conservation, Fundación Santo Domingo, and Wildlife Conservation Society for their continued support of this important effort.

Photo credit: Gustavo Garcia

McCord's Box Turtle

McCord’s Box Turtles (Cuora mccordi) were only described as a species as recently as 1988 (based on imported specimens from Hong Kong). Its true origins remained a mystery to science for decades until biologists finally found their habitat in southeast China. Evidence suggests McCord’s Box Turtle were never a common species, restricted only to bamboo and broadleaf forests and their accompanying shallow wetlands and small streams in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Like all but two other species of their genus Cuora, the McCord’s Box Turtle is Critically Endangered. Collection for food, traditional medicine and pet trades, deforestation, flooding, and pollution are all causes of their decline. In the 1980s, wild animal dealers from China’s larger cities began purchasing them from locals in the region to supply the demand within China and abroad. By the early 2000s, after roughly 800 individuals were collected during the 1980s and 90s, the population had collapsed. The last known wild turtle was collected in 2010. While collection for inter-Chinese and international trade was its major threat, other factors (including habitat destruction and a severe flood) led to their presumed extinction in the wild. Today, researchers believe that any remnant of this turtle’s population would be found in the form of solitary males traveling between bamboo patches in the forest.

At TSA’s Turtle Survival Center, however, this species is thriving and reproducing. In fact, of all the species with which we have reproductive success, the McCord’s Box Turtle continues to rank amongst the top. This is great news for their captive assurance population. It is only through captive-breeding programs like at our Turtle Survival Center, that the McCord's Box Turtle has a chance at survival.

Photo: Cris Hagen

Northern River Terrapin

The Northern River Terrapin (Batagur baska) is considered one of the Top 25 most endangered freshwater turtles in the world. In its native Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh, few wild individuals remain. To save them, TSA and our partners maintain breeding assurance colonies in both countries that, to date, have produced a bounty of offspring. These assurance colonies are their only hope for survival.

In Bangladesh, the species-saving collaborative between Zoo Vienna Schönbrunn, Turtle Survival Alliance, Bangladesh Forest Department, Turtle Island, and Prokriti O Jibon Foundation has made great strides in growing their captive assurance population. Hundreds of terrapins are thriving under the care of dedicated conservationists at Bhawal National Park and Karamjal Forest Station. This year, the first clutch of eggs was deposited at the Karamjal Forest Station on February 28, the program’s earliest nesting on record. Since that first nesting event, a total of five clutches have been deposited, three at Karamjal and two at Bhawal, totaling 137 eggs.

In India, the nesting season for the Northern River Terrapin made a fashionably late entrance. By the time nesting began at the TSA India Program / West Bengal Forest Department assurance colony at the Sajnekhali Tiger Reserve (STR), nesting was already wrapping up in Bangladesh. Not to be outdone by their Bangladeshi counterparts, the female terrapins at STR deposited over 90 eggs amongst four nests, a significant increase from 2020’s reproductive output.

We expect this year to be one of reproductive significance for the Northern River Terrapin.

Photo: Shailendra Singh

Painted Terrapin

The Painted Terrapin (Batagur borneoensis) is a Critically Endangered turtle native to Southeast Asia, including the Indonesian island of Sumatra. There the TSA and Satucita Foundation team up to save it.

From December to February, the field teams led by Joko Guntoro, get to work, patrolling the beaches of Aceh Tamiang and Langkat regencies. On optimal nights, the patrollers walk many kilometers in hopes of tracing female terrapins tracks to their nests. If they're lucky, they'll catch the female in action. When the teams find a nest, they excavate it and carefully relocate the eggs to the protected hatchery at the Painted Terrapin Information Centre in Pusung Kapal. This is their 9th year of performing this important conservation initiative.

Since 2013, our Sumatran collaborative has engaged in intensive Painted Terrapin conservation efforts. Over the previous 8 nesting seasons the teams have translocated, incubated, hatched, and released thousands of young terrapins into the estuaries of northeast Sumatra. This year, the teams translocated 654 eggs, just shy of 2016’s record. And, the eggs have begun hatching!

We would like to acknowledge the Bksda Aceh (Agency of Natural Resources Conservation), Houston Zoo, District Government of Aceh, Bbksda Sumatera Utara, Pertamina, Asian Species Action Network, and Synchronicity Earth for their support of this program.

Photo: Houston Zoo

Ploughshare Tortoise

The Ploughshare Tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora), or Angonoka, is regarded as the world's most endangered tortoise. Overhunting for the lucrative pet trade, compounded by wildfires, has all but doomed their wild existence in the tropical dry forests of Madagascar's northwest coast. Now, its wild population is restricted to Baly Bay National Park. Even there, its population continues to dwindle—so much so that they are nearly extinct in the wild.

In 2019, the TSA completed construction of an ultra-secure facility for Ploughshare Tortoises confiscated from illegal trade. This year, with funding secured from a generous donor, we are expanding this facility. TSA’s facility, operated by TSA-Madagascar, is one of two NGO assurance colonies for the critically endangered Ploughshare Tortoise in Madagascar. Reproductive success across these two facilities, and safeguarding the last wild individuals in Baly Bay National Park, will ultimately decide the fate of the Angonoka in its native country.

We would like to thank the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development (MEEF), Gendarmerie Nationale - Madagascar, Madagascar National Parks, and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for their support.

Photo: Anders Rhodin

Radiated Tortoise

Featuring a highly domed shell and beautiful golden striations, the Radiated Tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) is arguably the most iconic species TSA works to preserve. Of the more than 100 species of turtle and tortoise that benefits from TSA’s conservation programs, this species exemplifies our ability to take swift and decisive action. From humble beginnings, the TSA-Madagascar program has grown into our largest, operating 5 centers dedicated to the preservation of Radiated and other species of Malagasy tortoise.

The Radiated Tortoise is native to dry spiny forests and coastal scrub of Madagascar’s south. Once considered one of the most densely populated tortoises on earth, sadly, times have changed. The plight of the Radiated Tortoise is considered by many to be the "American Bison story" of Madagascar. Threatened by an analogous story of unsustainable harvest and extirpation, the tortoise, believed to once number over 12 million has disappeared from 65% of its range. The Radiated Tortoise has declined rapidly in the past 20 years and is now considered Critically Endangered due to rampant poaching for domestic and international food and pet markets, and continued habitat loss.

With every age and size class of tortoise of value to poachers, illegal trade seizures continue to leave the TSA with numerous additions to our burgeoning captive population of refugee tortoises. Annually, our TSA-Madagascar program treats, rehabilitates, and provides long-term care for hundreds to thousands of new tortoises. In 2018 alone, TSA and our partners provided rapid response for over 18,000 tortoi