I would first like to say that we fully support all reasonable and well managed efforts to conserve European chelonia enthusiastically, and have done so for many years. With a membership of approximately 5,000, we are also one of the largest chelonian organisations in Europe, and our membership includes professionals and enthusiasts of all levels of experience. We also support the establishment of educational centres and efforts to improve public understanding of the conservation issues relating to tortoises and turtles.
However, we regret to say that are extremely concerned about certain activities undertaken in recent years by CARAPAX and Rana International that we feel are counter-productive to the best principles of both animal welfare and conservation, and that, in addition, have the real potential to result in a biological catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.
By far the most serious objection on scientific grounds arises over the large numbers of animals of unknown origins, and unknown backgrounds, that have been released into various natural habitats throughout the Mediterranean. These efforts have been described as “repatriations” - though they do not really conform to this as many of the animals involved had no connection whatsoever with the chosen release sites. No animal should be released into the wild unless it can conclusively be established to originate at the precise release site intended and can be guaranteed to be free of any pathogen that could harm any existing population with which it may come into contact.
It is important to recognise that the taxonomic status of the majority of tortoise populations in the Mediterranean zone is very poorly understood, and is in a state of constant revision. This is particularly true in North Africa and in the Middle East. There are major morphological differences in many cases, between populations from different altitudes and micro-climates. The significance of this in genetic and taxonomic terms has not been conclusively established.
In this context then, introducing tortoises that may have originated elsewhere into these locations invariably has completely unpredictable and unknown consequences for the future genetic integrity of those populations. It is not enough to say that just because a tortoise may be from Tunisia it is therefore acceptable to release it into any locality in Tunisia, for example. These populations are virtually unstudied, and we simply do not know enough about them to allow for the release of animals from other sites into these localities. Doing so in effect “contaminates” those populations and localities genetically, and it destroys any possibility of meaningful future research at such sites. This is not conservation. This is vandalism.
Another key objection is the possibility of introducing “alien” pathogens to these already fragile wild populations. The devastating effects of such diseases can be seen very clearly in what has happened in the US, with Desert Tortoises. It would be an absolute tragedy if something similar occurred in the Mediterranean.
Unfortunately, there is no practical way to screen animals for all known and currently unknown diseases. Every such release is therefore unavoidably loaded with danger. It is not enough to undertake screening simply for Mycoplasma or Herpes. There are many other potentially catastrophic pathogens that could easily result in disaster, including iridovirus, adenoviruses and retroviruses to name just a few.
Animals that are ex-pets, or that may have had contact with large numbers of others, whether by means of transit via the reptile trade or being housed in sanctuaries with high concentrations of potentially infected and contagious specimens should never even be considered for release into natural habitats. The risk of doing so is extreme. Unfortunately, this is exactly what appears to have happened with these CARAPAX “repatriations”. On this basis alone, these actions need to cease immediately pending a full and independent scientific review and risk assessment.
It is in our opinion entirely unacceptable to continue with these releases. They represent an incalculable danger and offer no genuine conservation advantage whatever. There is no doubt that they appeal to the media, and no doubt that naive tortoise and animal welfare enthusiasts may see them as worthy of support, but when examined carefully, the policy is seriously flawed.
A final problem with CARAPAX, in our view, involves the large numbers of Red-Eared Sliders that have been moved to Italy to reside in ponds that are grossly over-stocked. This does raise serious humane and welfare issues. These concentrations are unacceptable. Behavioural and disease problems in such a situation are unavoidable. There is also extremely poor bio-security (the ponds are open to birds, for example) and the precautions to prevent escapes (and consequent breeding in the natural environment) are entirely inadequate. The same concerns about disease raised with the tortoise “repatriations” also applies to the turtles on the site. These animals are known vectors of a number of extremely serious contagious diseases, and threatened populations of local, native species such as Emys orbicularis occur in the same vicinity.
In summary, while we appreciate the genuine good intentions and undoubted enthusiasm of CARAPAX, we feel that the implementation is unfortunately very poor indeed, and not only confers no measurable conservation benefit, but actually represents a major threat to the very species they are claiming to protect. As such, on behalf of our members, many of whom have expressed great concern about this situation, we appeal to them to reconsider these strategies urgently.
A. C. Highfield
Director - Tortoise Trust
Chair - The Jill Martin Fund for Tortoise Welfare and Conservation