In recent years there has been growing awareness of the need for positive conservation action for chelonians. Unfortunately there are still major gaps in our knowledge of the ecology, distribution, and status of many of the rarer and endangered species. This makes conservation planning all the more difficult but no less urgent. The Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN has devised this action plan to stimulate further practical conservation for chelonians and to direct conservation efforts towards clearly defined priorities. This action plan is not an academic reference document. It is a working tool expressly aimed at ensuring that appropriate conservation action for chelonians actually does happen.
This action plan is concerned with all non-marine chelonians, about 240 species altogether, of which about 200 are loosely known as freshwater turtles, and the remaining 40 species comprise the land tortoises. Tortoises and freshwater turtles range throughout the tropical and warm temperate regions of the world, occupying a wide variety of habitats, from rain forest to true desert, from small puddles to great rivers and lakes, and playing diverse ecological roles. Chelonians are proving to be popular and useful subjects for scientific research. Many of the complexities of their ecology which are not yet fully unravelled, such as environmental sex determination, are of fundamental importance, and should lead to a better understanding of natural systems and communities, and of the evolutionary process as a whole.
On a more basic level man has had a long association with chelonians. Most species are edible and, especially in developing countries, have significant value as a source of fresh meat (and in some cases eggs as well). Unfortunately, hunting intensity is frequently excessive and uncontrolled. This, together with the use of chelonians for other products (e.g. souvenirs, aphrodisiacs, medicines) and for the international pet trade, is believed to be causing a severe strain on wild populations. Chelonians are slow-growing animals, not adapted to high levels of adult predation, and they cannot replace such losses quickly. They are also variably susceptible to habitat changes and pollution—some species are reasonably tolerant, while others depend on the maintenance of fragile, undisturbed ecosystems. Typically, over-harvesting for food and trade has been the primary cause of species decline, and then habitat destruction has provided the coup de grâce—but sometimes vice-versa.
There are two overriding and immediate concerns for the Specialist Group:
To ensure the protection and survival of all the threatened and vulnerable species of tortoises and freshwater turtles throughout the world.
To achieve effective protection and management of selected areas supporting a high diversity of chelonian species and/or an abundance of individuals.
In order to achieve sustainable conservation measures, the Specialist Group fully recognizes the absolute importance of habitat protection and management, coupled with a firm basis of support from local people. This is a crucial point and it must be understood that social and economic factors will ultimately decide the fate of most species. In this regard it is essential to have regional conservation strategies embracing the key points from the various specialist group action plans, which can be integrated with the wider social issues upon which real species conservation depends.
In devising this action plan, the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group appreciates its own, and IUCN's, limitations in relation to providing long-term management and funding. The Group, under the co-chairmanship of Dr. Ian Swingland and Dr. Peter Pritchard, serves as one of many groups of experts from around the world, providing technical advice to the Species Survival Commission of IUCN. In the context of this action plan the Specialist Group envisages itself in a catalytic role leading to the fulfillment of the above goals. The Group does not have resources for permanent active management, or land purchases, and these are generally seen as the responsibility of governmental and non-governmental organizations in the countries in question. However, the Group can contribute on behalf of IUCN along the following lines:
Identifying and publicizing the conservation requirements of tortoises and freshwater turtles.
Carrying out status surveys and developing pilot projects.
Liaising and co-operating with other conservation groups and development agencies, so that, where appropriate, chelonian projects can be included within existing or intended-conservation programmes.
Monitoring and advising on long-term projects, rather than running the entire programme.
Applying pressure to governments and other decision makers to establish domestic or national conservation programmes.
Encouraging and lobbying for international agreements.
Creating and increasing public awareness of the importance of tortoise and freshwater turtle conservation, both in respect to their vital ecological functions and their place in the natural heritage of the world, and particularly of the countries and areas in which they occur.
Within the limitations imposed by lack of information on many species, this action plan addresses the current priorities of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. Given its worldwide scope, the plan concentrates on securing conservation action for the most endangered species and for areas with the greatest concentrations of priority species. The latter may include several commoner species which are not currently threatened, but which are considered as an important resource by local communities, and for which a carefully designed management plan (including controlled harvesting) is likely to be the most effective means of sustainable conservation. Subspecies, or species threatened in one country but which are sufficiently widespread in others so as not to be in imminent danger of extinction, are generally not included. Such cases are certainly worthy of inclusion in national or regional conservation strategies, and would definitely receive the support of the Specialist Group. The Group welcomes new conservation initiatives directed towards any chelonian species, and also maintains a close interest in existing projects.
A final note of caution; this action plan alone cannot save all tortoises and freshwater turtles for all time, but if we are to avert major losses in the world's chelonian fauna and to maintain its current diversity, we need to establish immediately a solid foundation of conservation action. The priority programme contained in this action plan is the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group's contribution to this aim.
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