Kevin Packer

Save the turtles – from people!

May 30, 2019

There is a vast number of captive turtles kept as pets in homes, and it is up to their owners to give these wild animals their freedom back. At the Gazelle Valley Park in Jerusalem, an unusual animal welfare initiative aims to protect the local turtle population

Turtles aren’t domestic animals and should live in their natural habitat. But over the past decades, massive development has taken place over what were previously open areas where turtles once thrived. This urbanization also includes paving roads that endanger the animals. For this reason, it is necessary to protect them from confinement and preserve their environment.

World Turtle Day is celebrated May and is sponsored by the American Tortoise Rescue, a nonprofit organization established in 1990 for the protection of turtles. This day was created to help people celebrate turtles and tortoises and protect their disappearing habitats.

200 turtles returned in 5 days

Gazelle Valley Park, an urban nature park in the heart of Jerusalem, is taking advantage of the World Turtle Day by campaigning for people to give up their pet turtles and bring them to the park. This park is the largest urban nature site in the country and is the consequence of planning in collaboration with the general public. The valley encompasses an area of about 25 hectares, where, over the years, a herd of 30 deer has lived.

A similar initiative was launched last spring by the Jerusalem Municipality, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Gazelle Valley Park. “We contacted the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and we told them about the fact that people have turtles at home. We worked together in a campaign to ask people to bring the turtles to Gazelle Valley. We were amazed to see that in 5 days, we had over 200 turtles returned,” says Yael Hammerman, Director of Gazelle Valley Park.

The turtles are divided into three different groups: unhealthy turtles that are taken to the Israeli Wildlife Hospital for rehabilitation, turtles in good health (either due to short captivity time or good care), and turtles that need to stay in Gazelle Valley Park in order to to be evaluated to determine if they should return to nature.

Turtles in danger

There are two tortoise species in Israel: the Greek tortoise (Testudo graeca), which can be found throughout the country, and the Negev tortoise (Testudo werneri), which inhabits mostly desert areas.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), of all the recognized species of turtles and tortoises, 51.9% are Threatened, this includes species that are Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable. This means that more than half of the world’s turtles are in trouble.

Turtles from Asia have the highest percentages of endangered species, due to much higher levels of exploitation. They are collected and traded in the East Asian meat consumption trade, and their shells and bone are also used for traditional Chinese medicines. Live animals of all sizes, especially of rare and/or attractive species, have been poached and illegally marketed to the high-end international pet trade, primarily in China, but also to other Asian countries (e.g., Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, and Indonesia) as well as to Europe and the United States.

One of the biggest threats to turtles is keeping them as pets, which is happening worldwide; Israel is no exception. Having a pet turtle is both a problem for the turtle, which is deprived of its natural habitat and for the turtle owner, who might get sick from the diseases that turtles carry (e.g., salmonella). On the other hand, many pet owners are unaware of the nutritional needs of these animals. “Turtles get sick in people’s homes because they receive insufficient or inappropriate food,” says Yael Hammerman.

Another problem turtles face in captivity is when females want to lay their eggs. In the absence of a male, a female turtle will lay them regardless, but they will not be viable. In addition, when turtles do not have a suitable substrate to deposit their eggs, they will lay one or two eggs at a time over a few weeks rather than the entire batch at once; they may even not lay any eggs at all. The unlaid eggs will become increasingly calcified the longer they are held, making them more prone to breaking inside the turtle, which is a condition called egg-yolk peritonitis and can be fatal if not treated.

Free the turtles, responsively

If pet owners decide they can no longer care for their turtles, they sometimes free them on their own accord, which is illegal. These domesticated turtles may not survive on their own and may infect wild turtles with diseases they contracted during captivity. Released turtles that are not native to the area can out-compete local species for food and habitat, thus threatening the original biodiversity.

“If you see a turtle walking outside, enjoy by watching it but don’t pick it up! We want to see more and more turtles in the wild and not in houses. Let’s respect nature by helping it to be how it is supposed to be,” says Hammerman.

This ZAVIT article was also published in The Green Prophet on 05/30/2019.