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Slow and steady: World Turtle Day spotlights 25 years of turtle conservation

Posted by: Gigi Allianic, Communications

Today is World Turtle Day and the perfect time to join Woodland Park Zoo and zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to take action to help save the endangered western pond turtle from extinction.

For 25 years, Woodland Park Zoo has partnered with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to recover western pond turtles, including raising and releasing turtles back to protected wetlands. Oregon Zoo and other state, federal and private partners have since joined the effort to bring the imperiled species back from the brink of extinction.

This western pond turtle hatched overnight as World Turtle Day dawned. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

The species once ranged from Baja California to Puget Sound, including the Columbia River Gorge. In 1990, only about 150 western pond turtles remained in the wild in Washington. These last remaining individuals struggled for survival as they battled predation by the non-native bullfrog, disease and habitat loss. Since 1991, the collaborative, multi-institutional project has restored the population to more than 1,000 turtles at six sites in two regions of Washington state: Puget Sound and the Columbia River Gorge.

AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, and other like-minded organizations, are collaborating through a bold effort focused on saving species from extinction and restoring them in their natural ranges. AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) combines the power of engaging 183 million annual AZA-accredited zoo and aquarium visitors with the collective expertise of these facilities and their conservation partners to save signature species, including the western pond turtle. SAFE also provides a unique platform for AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums to increase the collective impact of their field conservation efforts and conservation contributions through conservation action plans (CAPs).

Getting ready to release a pond turtle into a protected Washington wetland. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

The SAFE Western Pond Turtle CAP focuses on: addressing knowledge gaps about western pond turtle distribution; establishing a Western Pond Turtle Rangewide Conservation Coalition to organize conservation efforts rangewide; and developing and implementing effective methods for identifying, treating and/or preventing a currently unidentified shell disease in Washington state, among other initiatives.

According to Fred Koontz, PhD, Woodland Park Zoo's vice president of field conservation:

"Turtles have existed on our planet for more than 220 million years. While the western pond turtle continues to survive, its recovery is as slow as a turtle. Saving wildlife depends on people. Everyone, no matter how old you are, can take action at home to help ensure this turtle thrives into the future."

To help make a difference for western pond turtles on World Turtle Day and every day, consider these additional actions:
  • Reduce pollutants to native turtle habitat by eliminating chemical pesticides from your gardening practices.
  • Improve the quality of wildlife habitat necessary for native turtle survival by joining a habitat restoration program in your community and using native plants in your own yard.
  • Take care not to release unwanted pets or animals into wild habitat—invasive species can outcompete or prey on native turtles. Call your local animal shelter to find a new home for an unwanted pet.
  • Access Unite For Literacy’s free Western pond turtle digital children’s book to help teach kids about this species.

Take your turtle love to the next level and think globally. Almost 50% of known turtle species are listed as threatened with extinction. Zoo educator Amanda Vandel shares these great tips for making the world a more turtle-friendly place:

"There are some very practical things you can do in your everyday life to help these awesome animals across the globe. The biggest thing you can do today to help turtles is to limit your plastic use. Going grocery shopping? Bring and use a reusable shopping bag. The average person uses 350-500 plastic bags annually. Going out to a restaurant? Opt not to have a one-time use straw with your drink. 500 million straws are used in the U.S. every day. Planning a birthday party? Use streamers instead of balloons. And never, ever release balloons. These small changes can make a huge impact for all wildlife."

You can learn even more from Amanda and other zoo staff at the turtle-themed talks featured at the new Alvord Broadleaf Theater this week. In true turtle-style, we're taking our time and celebrating World Turtle Day all week long!

Happy World Turtle Day! Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.