The Last Tortoise
A Tale of Extinction in Our Lifetime
by Craig B. Stanford
This book is an enlightening summary of the status of the world's tortoises and the problems
they face. The text is written for the general public, but unfortunately I think most readers that
decide to read this book will already be aware of many of the threats tortoises face today. The broad coverage of the book, however, should offer some new insights to most readers.
The book begins with a preface describing the status of living tortoises. Despite the dire descriptions, the author emphasizes that there is still hope for the long term survival of most tortoise species. The first couple of chapters define tortoises and discuss the variety of their biology and natural history. The third chapter outlines many of the threats to tortoises, such as habitat destruction, disease, and incidental killing (e.g., road kill). All along the way the author offers good examples using a variety of tortoise species and situations. The fourth chapter, entitled, "Eating Tortoises" was quite enlightening for me. I had no idea what a huge, world-wide problem the consumption of turtles is, or how massive the effect of consumption is on global tortoise populations. Giant tortoises that live on islands are the subject of chapter 5, with both the causes of their decline as well as their conservation discussed in detail. Finally, the problem of captive tortoises is discussed in chapter 6. From the desire to have the really rare tortoise to the seemingly benign desire to simply have any pet tortoise, the author covers a wide variety of issues associated with the captive trade in tortoises and its effect on wild populations. Chapter 7 offers potential solutions by highlighting some successful conservation strategies. This is followed by a final chapter of hope that people will change their ways to protect tortoises. The author also includes some useful appendices: extremes of the tortoise world; tortoises on the brink of extinction; tortoise species; and further reading.
Overall I found this book interesting and informative. I am not well versed with most of the species the author discusses, but I was working on Desert Tortoises in 1988-1989 when the western Mojave populations were emergency listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Here I found a couple of minor errors in the book. The author indicated that captive desert tortoises were released into the wild as a result of the emergency listing: "When tortoise owners learned that the pets they had taken from the wild years earlier were now on the endangered species list, many responded in the best-intended way possible. They put the tortoise in the car, drove him back out to the desert, and released him with a sense of having done something good in the world.... Within a few years of the initial listing of desert tortoises as threatened, biologists began to find wild tortoises that were sick."
In fact, upper respiratory disease syndrome was one of the major factors in getting the species listed, not a result of the listing. Personally, I think it is hopeful to think many people would take the time to drive back out to the desert to release their captive tortoise. I am sure it happened, both before and after the species was listed as threatened, but I am somewhat dubious that the listing had much effect on the number of tortoises released.
This perspective (that people were trying to help the desert tortoise by releasing them after they were listed) may be a bit optimistic in some respects, but this optimism comes through in much of the book. The author offers several optimistic solutions that could substantially help tortoises. I sincerely hope that he is right and tortoises are protected. Unfortunately I am a bit cynical - perhaps it is because I live in a state where most people feel the earth is here for humans to use and abuse.
Regardless of my somewhat pessimistic view of the future of tortoises, this book was well worth reading. I hope many people read it, especially people who keep turtles and tortoises in captivity. Everyone can help protect tortoises, even if you only donate funds to conservation projects. In fact, buying and reading this book, or giving it as a gift, will help protect tortoises - The proceeds from sales of this book are being used to support tortoise conservation in Asia and elsewhere.