by Whit Gibbons

March 23, 2008

You can find out all manner of things by reading T-shirts these days. In Toronto recently I learned: "There are eight species of turtles in Ontario. Six are at risk of vanishing forever." Not everything you read on a T-shirt is funny.

I was attending the Turtle Stewardship and Management Workshop hosted by the Toronto Zoo. The heroes of the conference were the 200 dedicated Canadians who gave talks, attended meetings, or otherwise supported the conference. These people are dedicated to saving their eight species of turtles. If any of the species do go extinct, these turtle activists will make sure that the turtle destroyers are identified and put in the spotlight of public scrutiny. These are the kind of advocates it takes to get the attention of the public and government officials in Canada. They are the same kind of people who promote environmental awareness and protection in the States.

The southeastern states are a lot warmer than southern Canada and have even more kinds of turtles. But the problems facing them are the same. Turtles are vanishing at an alarming rate from Canada, the Southeast, the entire world. Many people do not want to hear that turtles face the same problems, especially environmental pollution and habitat destruction, as other wildlife in today's overpopulated world. Pollution and habitat degradation are sad by-products of what is billed as economic progress. When such progress is achieved without regard for North America's wildlife and natural habitats—or for the people who care about them—I am not sure it can properly be called "progress." An additional threat to turtles is overharvesting. Southeastern states have become the targets of turtle trappers who move in and remove literally tons of turtles from the wild to be shipped and sold to Chinese and other Asian markets.

Three steps are required to develop successful conservation programs that protect turtles or any other type of wildlife. First, ecologists must conduct the scientific research necessary to document what the basic environmental requirements of the target organism are and how human activities are affecting their biology. The Canadian scientists and educators at the Toronto conference pointed out two of the major problems for their turtles. Foremost on the list was insensitive commercial development of wetland habitat and environmental pollution resulting from unregulated industries, agriculture, and urbanization. Road mortalities due to excessive highway construction are also a concern. The same two issues are commonly cited problems in the United States.

The second step is for turtle ecologists to educate John and Jane Q. Public about the problems confronting wildlife species. But the "public" also includes other ecologists, conservation biologists, and land managers—including in the United States those associated with state parks and natural resource departments, the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and similar agencies that are supposed to be stewards of our natural resources. Another important audience is elected officials, who are ostensibly representing the people.

The third step in a successful conservation program is for policy makers to listen objectively and act in accordance with what they learn. Scientists, conservation biologists, and state and federal land managers can be expected to do that. The response of elected officials is more problematic. Some simply do not care what the data reveal. They exemplify a saying you might see on a T-shirt: "My mind is made up. Don't confuse me with the facts." A wise and educated Jane and John Q. Public would vote such individuals out of office. And astute politicians would be listening and would understand that the majority of their constituents want to protect wildlife and natural resources and are opposed to unregulated degradation of land and water.

The Toronto T-shirt sported two numbers: 8, for existing species of turtles, and 6, for those at risk of going extinct. A comparable T-shirt in South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, or Alabama would have the following numbers: 21, 25, 27, 30 and 13, 17, 19, and 21. That second number should send an urgent message to policy makers and the people who vote for them. That's too many kinds of turtles to see vanish before our eyes.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)