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The 'Tortoise' and the Snare

Craig Stanford focuses on one of the most threatened species on Earth in his new book, <em>The Last Tortoise: A Tale of Extinction in Our Lifetime</em>. Stanford photo credit Phil Channing.
Craig Stanford focuses on one of the most threatened species on Earth in his new book, The Last Tortoise: A Tale of Extinction in Our Lifetime. Stanford photo credit Phil Channing.

The tortoise, long revered for its pace, good looks and mobile home, may be a victim of its own success as this living fossil is in danger of disappearing.

"We are at great risk of losing them all, not within our grandchildren's lifetime but within our lifetime," said USC College professor Craig Stanford.

Stanford, a renowned primatologist and co-director of the USC Jane Goodall Research Center, turns his attention to one of the most wonderful and threatened species on the planet in The Last Tortoise: A Tale of Extinction in Our Lifetime (Belknap Harvard, 2010).

This possible extinction is not like that of a panda, a single species, but more comparable to losing an entire family of animals, Stanford said.

The Last Tortoise travels the world to learn about the animal’s extraordinary adaptations to life in the desert and tropical forests. The Los Angeles Times, New Scientist and the Times Higher Education of England all gave glowing reviews.

Stanford’s engaging storytelling “speaks of his passion for the topic and his personal experiences both as a young naturalist and a seasoned biologist, ” wrote Eleanor Sterling, director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History in the Times Higher Education review. "This book goes a long way towards filling the information gap, tracing the history of tortoises from deep time to the present."

Stanford has spent his life learning more about primates around the world, spending months at a time doing field research in remote locations and writing 14 books and hundreds of scientific papers.

While doing just such research five years ago in Asia, a truck packed with live tortoises and turtles passed by. Among the cargo were highly endangered species. His guide told him the reptiles were on their way to market where they would be sold as food.

“I was exposed firsthand and I saw how bleak their future is,” said Stanford, who immersed himself in the tortoise, which is worth as much as a luxury car on the global black market.

He discovered that the most popular tortoise in the United States comes from Eastern Europe. More than 5 million have been imported in the past 20 years, but for every one that makes it to a backyard, eight die in transit, Stanford said.

While tortoises are evolutionary wonders — females may live to 100 years old and their fertility increases as they age — their exotic looks and slow speeds are no match for human predators that prize the tortoise as both pet and food.

“This is not global warming — this is people,” Stanford said. “We need to change the culture.”

In the end, Stanford was surprised to find a lack of research, funding and awareness and that led him to write his book.

Stanford believes action must be taken immediately. The pet trade needs to be discouraged by educating pet buyers. And for cultures that eat tortoises to survive, there needs to be sustainable, economic incentives to stop mass harvests.

“There are so many environmental causes these days and it’s hard to get a new one on the radar,” Stanford said. “This is now my effort. If we don’t act now, we will allow an entire family of amazing animals to slide into extinction.”