Unlikely Underdog Progress

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The Burmese star tortoise was declared functionally extinct in the early 2000s, but conservation efforts have helped the species make a comeback. Credit Eleanor Briggs

Thanks to Steph Yin for news out of Burma, of all places:

Slow and Steady, a Tortoise Is Winning Its Race With Extinction

The Burmese star tortoise was almost history.

By the early 2000s, the natives of central Myanmar’s deserts had dwindled to such low counts in the wild that ecologists declared them functionally extinct.About the size of a football when mature, the animals sported yellow polygon patterns across their shells that helped them camouflage in dry grasses but also made them attractive as exotic pets, smuggled for thousands of dollars to the United States, Europe and other parts of Asia.

Now, it appears that an eleventh-hour effort has pulled the species from the edge of extinction, according to a recent paper in the journal Herpetological Review. Steven Platt, a herpetologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and his collaborators outlined how setting up captive-bred assurance colonies in Myanmar has boosted the tortoise’s prospects. Starting with fewer than 200 tortoises in 2004, the assurance colonies now number about 14,000 captive tortoises, and around 1,000 animals have already been reintroduced into the wild, according to Dr. Platt.

Tracey Tuberville, a conservation ecologist at the University of Georgia, heard the authors present their work at a conference in August. “There was a collective gasp of astonishment in the audience when they presented their numbers,” she said. “The results were that remarkable.”

Earlier this century, the species was expected to vanish. In 2003, it took a survey team nearly 1,000 man-hours and 300 dog-hours to find a single tortoise on protected land. Hoping to follow the success of other captive breeding programs, which have led to reintroductions of bisonwolves and condors in the United States, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Myanmar government and a global conservation network called the Turtle Survival Alliance created captive breeding sites at three wildlife sanctuaries in Myanmar…

Read the whole story here.

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