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South African Reserve Offers Fresh Hope for Survival of Rare Tortoises

South African Reserve Offers Fresh Hope for Survival of Rare Tortoises

October 15, 2015

Rainforest Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization focused on saving threatened lands and endangered species, announced today that it has collaborated with conservation partners the Turtle Conservancy and South African Turtle Conservation Trust (SATCT) to create a new protected area conserving habitat for one of the world’s rarest reptiles, the Geometric Tortoise.

The new protected area, known as the Geometric Tortoise Preserve, was created on August 31 when SATCT purchased 212 acres of threatened shrubland habitat. Located in the Upper Breede Valley ecoregion of western South Africa, the new preserve will provide habitat for an estimated 100-200 geometric tortoises—a tiny tortoise no bigger than the palm of a human hand. Turtle Conservancy experts believe this community represents one of the last and largest viable populations of geometric tortoise in the world.

“Considering the plight of the geometric tortoise, there was an obvious need to act swiftly to purchase and protect the last remnants of its natural habitat,” said Rainforest Trust CEO, Dr. Paul Salaman. “Thanks to our collaboration with the Turtle Conservancy and SATCT, nearly a fifth of all geometric tortoises are now protected, and there is good reason to believe that the new reserve will help set the stage for a comeback.”

  • GEOMETRIC TORTOISE. PHOTO BY THE TURTLE CONSERVANCY

With 95 percent of its original habitat destroyed by agricultural encroachment, the rare tortoise’s total wild population numbers less than 1,000 individuals. Because of growing threats to its tiny population and ultimate survival, the IUCN has designated the species as Endangered, a status which will likely soon be upgraded to Critically Endangered. Besides agricultural expansion, Geometric Tortoise populations are threatened by the construction of roads that increase traffic-related mortalities and fragment remaining habitat. Making matters worse, overgrazing and the introduction of invasive species have altered the landscape and changed fire patterns. Fires now occur with greater frequency, destroying more habitat and killing tortoises.

Although the Geometric Tortoise has long been admired for its domed carapace and stunning yellow-and-black radiating pattern, awareness and alarm about the species’ fate has, until recently, been limited to a small number of conservationists.

  • ALTERED FIRE PATTERNS HAVE CREATED A DANGEROUS SITUATION FOR THE TORTOISES. PHOTO BY THE TURTLE CONSERVANCY

“There have been intermittent plans and some reserves created over the past 50 years, but only recently has international and local governmental attention risen to a new level of concern,” said Dr. James Juvik, Director of South Africa Programs at the Turtle Conservancy.

To help Geometric Tortoises bounce back and ensure the quality of its habitat, SATCT will remove invasive species and restore native plants within the preserve. The organization will also construct a fence around the preserve to prevent intrusions by animal predators and human poachers.

In addition to protecting Geometric Tortoises, the preserve will also provide much-needed habitat for other imperiled species, including the Angulate and Parrot-beaked Tortoises, as well as numerous plant species, including at least five that are endangered.

In a continuing effort to improve protection of the Geometric Tortoise, Rainforest Trust plans to partner with the Turtle Conservancy and SATCT again to expand the reserve by 856 acres through the purchase of a large adjacent property. Visit Rainforest Trust’s project page to learn more about the project.

This project was made possible thanks to the generous donation of an anonymous contributor.
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Rainforest Trust is a nonprofit conservation organization focused on saving rainforest and endangered species in partnership with local conservation leaders and communities. Since its founding in 1988, Rainforest Trust has preserved eight million acres of rainforest and other tropical habitats and has 184 projects in 32 countries.

The Turtle Conservancy (TC) is a small and highly focused nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting the most threatened turtles and tortoises and their habitats worldwide. Co-founded in 2005 by Eric Goode, the TC recently established one of the only nature reserves in the world for the protection of a critically endangered tortoise, and is engaged in critical conservation programs around the world. The TC also operates one of the most successful turtle and tortoise captive-breeding programs in the world.