Extinction is forever. This truism has become a mantra for the environmental conservation movement. And while humankind's role in the worldwide epidemic of species extinctions is both deplorable and depressing, it is true that species became extinct before Homo sapiens existed and would have continued to do so even if we had never evolved into the world dominant techno ape. What I find even more disconcerting than the loss of a rare butterfly or fish is the decline of entire large groups of organisms. I had heard about the worldwide decline in frog species, but it wasn't until I read The Last Tortoise that I was aware of the global decline in turtles and tortoises. I think it bodes ill for the long term habitability of our planet when hundreds of reptile species that have flourished for over two hundred million years can be completely wiped out in just a few centuries.
Craig Stanford, an accomplished primatologist at the University of Southern California, chooses to focus his latest efforts on a completely different type of animal. He doesn't spend much time explaining this decision, but it's clear that he has a true passion for these ancient reptiles and their plight.
He starts the book with some basic descriptions of the differences among the many groups of turtles and tortoises. He then explains the multiple factors that have led to the imminent extinction of so many of these species, warning readers that most if not all tortoise species could be extinct in the wild within the next twenty years. Much of this discussion includes information about the complicated bureaucratic mess that is today's international conservation effort, formally known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Lastly, he offers some very practical ideas about how humanity might save these amazing creatures.
Unfortunately, tortoises appear to be facing a perfect storm of extinction. Three imposing anthropocentric factors play a role: large segments of the human population find them to be very tasty; much of tortoise habitat has been transformed into shopping malls and parking lots; and humans are avid collectors. In fact, the more endangered a species becomes on CITES scale, the more valuable and desired it becomes for reptile aficionados. Stanford argues that without a comprehensive and enforceable protection program in place, a CITES labeling as endangered (Appendix I - international trade highly restricted) can be the kiss of death, pushing the species toward extinction as collectors scramble for the last few organisms.
While Stanford writes more like a professor than a journalist, he is able to convey some of the joy he experiences while encountering these unusual creatures. The book is at its best when he writes about the giant tortoises of the Galapagos and the Indian Ocean. I appreciate the fact that he includes some of his personal experiences with these massive "cold-blooded cows". His descriptions of their persecution by the sailors of yesteryear are gut-wrenching.
"As sailing ships came and went, the crews collected vast amounts of tortoise meat. It was tasty, nutritious - the liver was especially savored - and highly transportable. It was canned food, alive. You could load a hundred tortoises in the hull of a ship, stack them on their backs like so many barrels of salted meat, and they would survive long enough that the crew could eat fresh meat for months."
Despite the depressing title and topic, Stanford is not ready to concede defeat. He spends the last section of the two hundred page book describing several possible solutions, suggesting captive breeding programs that could lead to the introduction of giant tortoises to locales where their pre-historic ancestors flourished, like the Caribbean and Florida; or maybe other places that they might find hospitable. It's not as if it would be hard to round them up if they became a nuisance.
When I'm riding my bike around the picturesque local countryside, I encounter plenty of road kill, some of it quite disturbing. But no sight is more upsetting than a flattened turtle. The contrast of such astounding evolutionary success and resiliency with the injustice and harsh anonymity of humanity's internal combustion wrecking ball creates an emotional dissonance that remains with me for days. The Last Tortoise takes some of that sentiment and makes it global. There may be no group of animals that can be more easily eliminated by humanity than the turtles and tortoises; the hardiness and resiliency that have served them well for hundreds of millennia are no match for our unstoppable technology. It is that vast inequity that heightens our obligation to try and protect these creatures and Professor Stanford strongly supports this idea in his informative, poignant and - hopefully - motivating work.
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