by Whit Gibbons

May 27, 2002

Less than six months ago the cofounder of Intel, Gordon Moore, and his wife, Betty, made a donation of more than a quarter of a billion dollars in support of the environment. The money will be paid out over the next decade for conservationists and ecologists to focus on tropical regions of the world where plant and animal extinctions are occurring at an alarming rate. To put the Moores' contribution in perspective, it is the largest donation ever made to support conservation efforts and far surpasses the annual budgets of such well known environmental groups as the Sierra Club.

The contribution to support the environment went to the Washington based, nonprofit organization known as Conservation International, or CI. The mission of CI is "to conserve the Earth's living natural heritage, our global biodiversity, and to demonstrate that human societies are able to live harmoniously with nature."

Being an international conservation group, CI has many problems to choose from in directing its efforts. Admittedly, the environmental attitudes of some Americans are less than lofty, but consider those from other places. For example, a quote from the Jakarta Post sums up part of the problem in Indonesia: "Orangutans, yellow-crested cockatoos, parrots, birds of paradise and more are proudly paraded by traders in public places--even in shopping malls--to satisfy people's curiosity. For the right price, the animals can belong to those who believe keeping endangered animals as pets will raise their social status." The only upside for a group like CI that is fighting to protect endangered species and natural communities is that sometimes the perps are readily identifiable.

Few of us in the United States have much association with birds of paradise or the great apes, but everyone is familiar with turtles. And turtles are a topic of interest for CI. As Kurt Buhlmann, CI's Coordinator for Amphibian and Chelonian Conservation says, "in some regions of the world, the unsustainable and unregulated consumption of freshwater turtles and tortoises has pushed some species close to extinction in a frighteningly short period of time." This means that of the 265 species of turtles and tortoises left on earth today, many are in serious trouble from a conservation point of view, and for some their very existence is an issue. The most urgent problem appears to be in China and other parts of Southeast Asia where turtles are being removed from the wild at an alarming rate for commercial sale. Serving turtle at a meal is considered a status symbol in many parts of Southeast Asia. ("Chelonian," by the way, means turtle.)

Among the world's turtles, based on evaluations by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), 2 are now extinct, 2 are extinct in the wild, 23 are critically endangered, 48 are endangered, and 62 are vulnerable. In addition, the status of 86 species has not been sufficiently determined to know whether they are at high risk of being depleted or not. Clearly, the prospects for wild turtles do not look good without some help. Few are left that fall into the low risk category.

To combat the problem faced by Southeast Asian turtles as well as those in other regions, a small group of the world's turtle ecologists, conservationists, and concerned individuals scheduled a meeting in southwest Georgia in late May to create the Global Freshwater Turtle and Tortoise Conservation Initiative. The purpose is to agree on a plan, identify partnerships, locate funding, and immediately initiate priority actions to prevent any further loss in diversity of the world's freshwater turtles and tortoises. The overarching goal is to ensure that no turtle species becomes extinct. Sadly, such coalitions have become necessary for maintaining the continued existence of many of the species of animals and plants that exist today.

Gordon Moore has the proper vision in directing the use of a fortune toward conservation of the world's biodiversity. Kurt Buhlmann, others at CI, and their partners will be doing their part to ensure that the funding is put to proper use for turtles. Let's hope their meeting results in some conservation actions that benefit the turtles and tortoises of the world that are still with us.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)