Turtles don't have it easy, from habitat loss to unsustainable use, populations around the world are declining. Even our native turtles that can be found in our very own backyards are vulnerable and in danger. One of the biggest emerging, but previously under-recognized threats, is the illegal wildlife trade. The U.S.'s southeastern turtle species are being illegally collected, exported, and sold to the pet and food trade at an alarming rate. Although confiscations by law enforcement are becoming more frequent, turtles are often not released back into the wild because their original location is unknown and the potential of spreading illness to wild populations is a concern. As more and more confiscations take place, a conservation strategy for displaced turtles needs to be developed and implemented to prevent wild populations from completely disappearing. University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL), in collaboration with conservation partners, is working to develop a decision tree for determining whether confiscated turtles can be safely released back into the wild and protocols for increasing the likelihood of successful outcomes.

Currently the most frequently trafficked turtles in North America are box turtles. For example, a single confiscation in Oklahoma seized over 1000 three-toed and western box turtles. Closer to home, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) seized over 200 eastern box turtles from an illegal wildlife trafficker in August 2019. Turtles were held in temporary captivity in an outdoor aviary at Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL) while genetics and health samples were collected, and an outdoor 2.5-acre pen was constructed. Through a collaboration between SREL, SCDNR, and U.S. Forest Service-Savannah River, the box turtles now reside in an outdoor enclosure on protected habitat at the Savannah River Site (SRS), near Aiken, SC. We plan to release them from their enclosure in Spring 2020.

Our research objectives are to: 1) monitor movement and survival of repatriated radio-transmitted animals from spring emergence to winter dormancy (April - November 2020); 2) submit swabs for pathogen screening and synthesize data on health of turtles at the time of the seizure; and 3) determine the source populations for the confiscated box turtles. Based on our research findings, we plan to develop recommendations for improving the outcome of future turtle confiscations.

  • Pathogen screenings to monitor for pathogens commonly found in wild or captive turtles, such as ranavirus, Mycoplasma, and herpesvirus.
  • Genetic testing of seized turtles to identify the source population(s) from which the animals were originally collected in the wild by comparing the turtles in our study to a library from reference populations throughout the species' range.
  • Vehicle operation and maintenance to carry out field work and data collection.
Emma Browning photo

Emma Browning earned her B.S. in Wildlife biology from West Texas A&M University in 2015 and has worked on reintroductions of gopher tortoises, massasaugas, and flatwood salamanders. She is now a master's student under Dr. Tracey Tuberville at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and the Savannah River Ecology Lab, working in turtle conservation and management.

Tracey Tuberville photo

Tracey Tuberville received her M.S. in Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development and PhD in Ecology from the University of Georgia. She is an Associate Research Scientist at University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, where her work focuses on the conservation, ecology and management of long-lived reptiles.

Kurt Buhlmann photo

Kurt Buhlmann received his Ph.D. in Ecology from the University of Georgia, M.S. in Wildlife Management from Virginia Tech, B.S. in Environmental Studies from Stockton State College, N.J. He is a Senior Research Associate at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory where his work focuses on conservation, habitat restoration, and recovery of threatened amphibian and reptile species, with a focus on turtles and tortoises.

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