Turtles of Ojai

Words: Emilie Von Unwerth
Images: Giancarlo D'Agostaro
Illustrations: Giacomo Bagnara

June 01 2016

Settled in the scenic city of Ojai, California, surrounded by the Topatopa Mountains to the north and Sulphur Mountain to the south, The Turtle Conservancy Conservation Center is home to perhaps the most docile, calm creatures on the planet.

An otherworldly oasis in central Ojai, the Conservancy made an appearance in our Go Explore lookbook. Owned and operated by restaurateur, conservationist, herpetophile and generally dope human Eric Goode, the 5-acre conservancy is home to 900 turtles and tortoises from 32 species. The Turtle Conservancy is the premiere facility for breeding Critically Endangered – the highest risk category for endangered species – turtles and tortoises in the world.

In addition to its main office in New York and the conservation breeding center in Ojai, the organization overseas multiple programs and efforts around the world. They recently accumulated about 1000 acres in South Africa for another project; they’re working with several species in Madagascar; helping with trade monitoring in Southeast Asia; and are working with a newly discovered species of Desert Tortoise in Mexico.

“Most people don’t even realize this, but turtles and tortoises are the most threatened group of vertebrates on the planet,” says Max Maurer, a research associate at the conservancy. “Turtles are pretty innocent little creatures; the only reason they’re here at this point is because we allow them to be here.”

Turtles predate humans by about 220 million years, so it comes as no shock that the creatures have an awe-inspiring effect on us. “Hanging out with the tortoises – especially here on this property – reminds everyone to slow down,” says Max. “You can get on their level, get on your knees, look down at them, and make eye contact with them. They’re just so slow, and everything is just so calm.”

The Property, with its birds, lizards, abundant flora and greenhouses scattered along the property, acts as an inherently tranquil backdrop for the work taking place at the facility.

Turtles and tortoises are adapted to very specific environments – vegetation, humidity and temperature all play a crucial role in the survival of these beings. The Conservancy staff has taken great care to mimic different biomes by equipping multiple greenhouses with varies temperatures, humidities, biota and landscapes. One greenhouse mimics the cloud forests at the top of the Thai mountains, another parodies the lowlands of Southeast Asia. Yet another simulates the arid climates in Namibia and South Africa.

The goal of Ojai’s breeding center is, of course, to breed these critically endangered creatures; a third of the species housed at Ojai are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group’s “Top 40 Most Endangered” list. And, because breeding species in captivity is a volatile science, the Conservancy can have success in getting the animals to mate, but many of the eggs laid aren’t fertile.

Looking at the bigger picture, though, even in the wild, numbers of new hatchlings are declining. “Climate change is a huge factor in affecting turtle populations, says Max. “The sex of the hatchling is determined by the temperature which it is incubated at, so the higher the temperatures, the more females we’re going to have.”Many of these completely defenseless species haven’t gone extinct because they’re simply lucky, explains Max. “They’re protected by some sort of cultural ideology that’s been going on for ages in some countries, but all of that is changing”

Across the globe, turtles are depicted as easygoing, patient, and wise creatures. Due to their long lifespan, slow movement, sturdiness, and wrinkled appearance, they are an emblem of longevity and stability in many cultures around the world. Their magnificence, though, makes them a coveted human target. Turtles and tortoises – whose populations have been slashed to a sliver of what they once were in recent decades – face a threefold threat of extinction: the pet trade, opportunistic consumption and traditional folk medicinal practices.

Some species of tortoise sell for up to 200 thousand dollars on the Black Market. Often times, explains Max, these turtles are snatched from Madagascar, flown through Nairobi, then through Bangkok and wind up in China, where they “sit in someone’s apartment as some sort of status symbol.” In ancient Chinese writings, turtles are often depicted as oracles, with magical healing properties found within their shell. The most prominent example of these creatures being killed for use in folk medicine is a species called the Golden Coin Turtle. Endemic to southern China, the Golden Coin Turtle is used to create Guīlínggāo, or turtle jelly. Practitioners of folk medicine grind up the shell to a powder, mix it with a variety of herbal products and serve it as jelly. This elixir is believed to help improve circulation and complexion; reduce acne; assist in muscle growth; relieve itching, and restore kidney function.

With numbers across all species continuing to decline, the Turtle Conservancy maintains the facility at Ojai to – at least partially – restore turtle and tortoise populations. The organization also promotes the protection of all endangered species through protecting the planet. Eating a more plant-based diet, being more conscious of where you spend your money and raising awareness via social media are their suggestions

To quote its missions statement, “The Turtle Conservancy envisions a world where all species of turtles and tortoises ultimately thrive in the wild.” What a wonderful world that would be.

You can follow the Turtle Conservancy on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Giancarlo D’Agostaro is a photographer based in Los Angeles.

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