The San Diego Zoo has been home to numerous turtle and tortoise species since we opened for business in 1916. Our founder, Harry Wegeforth, M.D., was particularly fond of all things turtle and felt his zoo could never have enough of them! By 1934, the Zoo had more than 50 species from all parts of the globe, and students came from around the world to study the collection because of the wide variety represented here.
Today, our turtle collection can be found in various areas of the Zoo. We created a mixed-species habitat for Pacific pond turtles and other local reptiles in our Elephant Odyssey habitat, providing guests with an opportunity to learn about these San Diego natives.
Some of the Zoo’s oldest animals make their home in the Fetter Family Galápagos Tortoise Exhibit, which opened in September 2010. Visitors love these slow and steady giants for good reason—they are fascinating! Galápagos tortoises have been the cornerstones of our history: the Zoo has been home to a herd of them since 1928, when the first ones arrived from the Galápagos Islands. Currently, our herd numbers 17, including 10 of the original tortoises, which are all more than 100 years old! You can spot these pioneers for yourself when you visit the exhibit—just check the numbers painted on their shells. Males have white numbers and females have red. Look for numbers 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 23, and 29!
Be sure to check out the Zoo’s new Reptile Walk. Opened in July 2012, Reptile Walk leads you past animals that make their homes in various types of wetlands including marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens, and seasonal wetlands called vernal pools and washes. The exhibit describes threats that are drastically reducing populations of reptiles and amphibians. For example, the Roti Island snake-necked turtle is classified as critically endangered due in part to the pet trade. We have one of the most successful breeding programs for this species and have hatched more than 70 so far.
In the Zoo’s Discovery Outpost, you’ll find a variety of turtles and tortoises. One watery exhibit is home to narrow-headed softshell turtles, painted and river terrapins, stripe-necked turtles, Fly River turtles, and a Malaysian giant turtle named “The General,” who was rescued from a shipment destined for an Asian food market. The turtles in this large pond can be seen swimming around the exhibit, especially through the underwater viewing window on the lower lever. When not swimming, they often practice their “submarine’ imitation, rising slowly to the surface to take a breath, then sinking again in exactly the same spot as bubbles come up around them.
In Lost Forest, you’ll find painted and Bornean river terrapins as well as Chinese stripe-necked, Fly River, pond, flapshell, short-necked, snake-necked, and narrow-headed softshell turtles. And in the Zoo’s Reptile House, you’ll find our alligator snapping turtles. They are all great fun to watch!
Sometimes people build roads, homes, and hotels at the edges of lakes, rivers, and seas where turtles come to lay their eggs. This can really confuse turtles, and they may not lay eggs as a result; that, of course, means fewer baby turtles. Trash in the oceans, like fishing nets and lines and plastic bags, can entangle and kill sea turtles. Slow-moving tortoises are easily caught for food or as “pets.” Chinese people eat enormous quantities of turtles; more than 10 million turtles are exported to China and 180 million Chinese softshell turtles are farm raised each year for consumption in China.
All over the world, habitats are being destroyed or polluted. In the U.S., for example, the loss of streamside habitats everywhere is hurting turtle populations. Off-road vehicles in the desert are destroying desert tortoise habitats, and urban rain run-off is carrying trash and poison into lakes, streams, and creeks.
So what’s being done? Many governments as well as zoos and wildlife organizations are coming together to try to save the world’s turtles. Governments are also starting to work together to enforce turtle export laws and to police the markets in Asia where turtles are sold and traded.
The Roti Island snake-necked turtle has been heavily exploited by the pet trade and is now virtually extinct in the wild. The San Diego Zoo established a breeding group of these endangered turtles and partners with the Turtle Survival Alliance in Europe. In 2005, we hatched the first of several clutches of eggs at our reptile facility, producing 15 offspring.
The majority of the most critically endangered turtles in the world are found in Madagascar and Southeast Asia. San Diego Zoo Global, the Turtle Survival Alliance, and the Wildlife Conservation Society have created a global conservation program for freshwater turtles and tortoises. We have conservationists currently guiding conservation programs for giant river turtles in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Malaysia, and doing fieldwork on critically endangered turtle species in Indonesia, Laos, and Vietnam. Significant progress toward preventing the extinction of many of the 300 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises is on the horizon.
The local population of desert tortoises in the nearby Mojave Desert is estimated to have declined as much as 90 percent in the past 20 years. San Diego Zoo Global operates the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas, Nevada. Each year, about 1,000 desert tortoises end up at the DTCC. Many suffer from improper diet and care, including lack of sunlight. The DTCC is the only authorized organization permitted to take in these animals, rehabilitate them, and legally return healthy individuals to the wild through a structured research program to ensure their success.
In April 2011, 36 desert tortoises were returned to the Nevada desert. Each tortoise carries a VHF radio transmitter on its back so that our researchers can gather data about their movements and habitat choices. Please don’t take home—or even pick up—any desert tortoises you find, because they are a threatened species protected by the Endangered Species Act. Taking, harming, and even approaching these reptiles in the wild is illegal, and keeping them as pets is strictly regulated by the California Department of Fish and Game and the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
In our own backyard, we are working to save local southwestern pond turtles, San Diego’s only native freshwater turtle. Normally found in pools within natural streams and sloughs, pond turtles are becoming rare within coastal southern California. Among the nonnative species that compete with pond turtles for food, or might eat them, are green sunfish, American bullfrogs, African clawed frogs, red-eared sliders, and crayfish.
San Diego Zoo Global, U.S. Geological Survey, San Diego Association of Governments, and the California Department of Fish and Game kicked off a joint project in 2009 to help this species. As a part of this study, researchers brought female turtles from the Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve to the Zoo in 2009 and 2010. The females laid their eggs at the Zoo and then were returned to the reserve. Ten of the eggs hatched. After nonnative predators were removed, five of the juveniles were released into the Reserve in July 2013. We also have 12 pond turtles on exhibit in our Elephant Odyssey habitat at the Zoo that are not part of this study but are serving as educational ambassadors for this project and the species.
We hope that learning about turtles inspires you to help conserve species in your own backyard by not releasing unwanted pet turtles, like red-eared sliders, and helping to keep local watersheds clean. We encourage you to join local volunteer organizations that help restore local watersheds by removing exotic plant species and trash.