‘Orphan’ Tortoises Find Forever Home In Tiny Broward Preserve

‘Orphan’ Tortoises Find Forever Home In Tiny Broward Preserve

Charles Livio, 62, is proud of his adopted family of 12.

“We have 10 adults and two juveniles,” says a beaming Livio.  “We had a successful breeding.”

If that sounds like a strange way for a foster dad to talk about his charges, it’s only because the family at Oakland Park’s Lakeside Sand Pine Preserve is an unusual one.  And Livio’s 12 dependents are a bit reclusive.

“They are naturally leery of people. And when they see people, they will usually scurry back in their burrow or they’ll just scurry off,” he says.

“They” are a group of orphaned gopher tortoises living at the sand pine preserve as part of Florida’s Waif Tortoise Adoption Program.  It was Livio, horticulturist for the city of Oakland Park, who suggested that the preserve would make an ideal sanctuary for the tortoises.  Wildlife officials agreed and Lakeside became the first waif gopher tortoise recipient site in Florida.

Horticulturist Charles Livio examines a bed of blanket flowers growing in the Lakeside Sand Pine Preserve.

Although the 5.6-acre preserve lies not far from busy, noisy Oakland Park Boulevard, Livio says a visit to the scrub is a journey back to prehistoric Florida.

“This is what Florida looked like before development,” he says.

The remnant sand pine scrub is one of many ancient coastal dunes deposited across Florida. Thousands of years ago, scrub lands were the only parts of Florida above sea level. Unique plant and animal life emerged on these exposed ridges, many of which  survive nowhere else today.

During a tour, Livio points them out excitedly: “We’ve got the sand live oak . . . Saw palmetto!  This has become a hot landscape plant in South Florida! . . . This is huckleberry . . .”

But most importantly, the preserve has the sandy soil gopher tortoises need to dig their burrows.  Gopher tortoises are listed as an endangered species in Florida  and their numbers are declining throughout the state because of habitat loss.  A tortoise is considered a “waif” when it’s been removed from the wild for reasons (and by persons) unknown.

Livio says he’s happy that the family has grown from its original four tortoises to a dozen, but he worries that the brood will outgrow the small preserve.

And then one day . . .