Saving a Living Treasure of Asia

China has emerged as the world's largest market for smuggled endangered animal species. Just as some of our own environmental transgressions are born of the Western notion of man's hegemony over the natural world, China's destruction of its natural heritage is rooted in social and cultural mores that include the role of animal parts in traditional Chinese medicine. The freedom to spend currency abroad and the rise of the Chinese middle class have, despite government avowals to the contrary, increased trade on protected and threatened species worldwide. Tigers, rhinos, and bears are some of the most publicized and emblematic victims of smuggling and butchery, but there is another, nearly silent extinction epidemic underway in Asia -- the decimation of Asian turtles.

Included among these is the Giant Asian Forest Tortoise, Manouria emys, which occurs as far south as the Indonesian Island of Sumatra, and as far north as the Chinese border with Burma. Reaching as much as 100 lbs., but more typically half that, the Giant Asian Forest Tortoise -- the largest tortoise in Asia and fourth largest terrestrial turtle in the world -- is losing habitat daily, and is wantonly slaughtered for both medicine and food. Despite its bleak outlook, the species (both the smaller, southern, lowland race and the rarer, darker, larger, mountain variety) may ultimately owe their survival not to sweeping law enforcement or local fieldwork, but to the passion of unlikely conservation hero living not in Asia, but in a small town in North Florida.

63-year-old Vic Morgan has no idea where his love of animals came from. As far as he knows, he's the first in his family tree to be happier in the woods than in town -- his father sold insurance -- but after moving from Virginia to Florida when he was six years old, he lived the life of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn along the St. Johns River, catching snakes, frogs, lizards, toads, and yes, turtles. Later he went into the business, wholesaling reptiles, trading, and eventually breeding. Yet this is no simple pet fancier. In December of 1987, Morgan caught sight of his first Giant Asian Forest tortoise, and if it wasn't love at first sight, it might as well have been. A history of "going against the grain" and a familiarity with animal genetics arising from breeding an unusual strain of German Shepherd dog (it's red) gave him a leg up on figuring out how to make the giant reptiles happy enough to reproduce. The first private sector keeper to consistently produce multiple generations, these days Morgan produces Manouria in sufficient numbers to sell to others interested in saving and breeding the rare giants. His enclosures are huge and naturalistic, and a credible version of the natural habitat.

The practiced eye of the reptile lover finds a great deal in Manouria emys that others might miss. There is, for example, what Morgan calls "a keen awareness of human presence. The big tortoises are quite territorial and watch Morgan carefully as he walks their generous pens, sometimes even following him for a bite of food or to nip at his ankles. The more he works with them, the more intelligent and aware he finds them. This is all the more remarkable because the great beasts are quite primitive, bearing anatomical characters directly traceable to the ancestral Eocene era ancestors from which Asian turtles sprang. Primitive doesn't mean dumb, Morgan explains, but rather that they are equipped with capabilities and behaviors that have allowed them to survive predators and climate changes that wiped out many other animals.

Staying warm is a critical concern for every reptile, and the size of Morgan's enclosures allows him to see Manouria's particularly sophisticated temperature regulation strategies. The turtles commonly wait for patches of sunlight to appear in precise spots in the dawn darkness, for example, and evidence other unusual and complex behavior such as building above-ground nests the way alligators do. When they copulate, the males grunt loudly enough to "be heard all over the property," says Morgan. Like both the common American alligators and it's critically endangered Chinese cousin, Manouria have also persisted across geologic time. Apparently they represent a combination of generalist adaptations that just plain works. Researchers report them living in vertical slits in Thai mountain waterfalls, areas most turtles could never climb to, and a climate few of the giant's tortoise's brethren could brave. It's possible they make endogenous heat the way alligators (and mammals and birds) do, Morgan reports, but until studies are done we won't know.

As devoted as he is to his own animals, Morgan is deeply stirred by the conservation crisis in Asia. His outrage is palpable when he recounts a 4.5-ton shipment of smuggled turtles that was intercepted by police on the way to mainland China, offered to a zoo in Hong Kong that had no space for them (such interceptions are a regular thing), and then finally shipped to Florida as a destination of last resort. Out of the 7000 turtles in the container, only 64 were Giant Asian Forest Tortoises. Morgan saved those he could, assisted in finding homes for them, and kept a couple for his own facility. The fact that these ill-fated animals not only survived, but also produced offspring led him to name his compound "Defying Destiny Turtle Farm."

While zoo officials, some conservation biologists, and organizations such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) decry the keeping of animals by private individuals, the pet trade accounts for only a few percent of the rape of Asian wildlife. Many pet fanciers do indeed represent a sad, dead end for wild creatures, but Morgan was the first person to breed Manouria successfully in captivity, and has enlightened both zoos and private breeding facilities worldwide on the practice. In fact, when the group of philanthropists, zoo curators and biologists known as the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) hosted a summit on the plight of endangered turtles in 1999, they invited Morgan to present what he knew.

These days, TSA's efforts are bearing fruit. One result of their dedication is a program that takes captive-raised animals to schools in Madagascar -- home to some turtle species teetering on the edge of extinction -- putting the animals in the hands of children in a way that helps them understand the value of natural resources and increases the chances that the next generation will do a better job in conserving their heritage than this one has. Another TSA project is the establishment of so-called "Assurance Colonies" throughout the world to make sure that endangered tortoises don't disappear from the planet entirely. The TSA is working with Asian governments, and Morgan is hopeful that at some point in the future some of those tortoises might even be able to be returned to their native habitat.

The efforts of conservation groups like the Wildlife Conservation Society, World Wildlife Fund and others are often in the news and sometimes even linked to celebrities. Professional groups like the TSA get far less play, but at least receive charitable donations. It's the efforts of exceptionally committed individuals like Vic Morgan, however, that may well spell the future for some of the rest of our planet's many, critically endangered animals, particularly the ones tougher to love and easier to ignore.