Tattoos have been used for wildlife identification for years. ID numbers have been inscribed on rabbit ears, bear lips, and on the bellies of various mammals. But turtles don’t have big floppy ears, nor do they have big fleshy lips, and their “belly” is a hard shell. How could one possibly tattoo a turtle?
Turtles have walked the earth for 220 million years, outlasting their early contemporaries – the dinosaurs. These ancient animals now face an unprecedented extinction crisis, as they have become the most endangered group of vertebrates in the world. The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) is a globally recognized force in turtle and tortoise conservation with an international network of centers, field, research, conservation, and recovery programs with a commitment to zero turtle extinctions. One of the more unconventional tools in our conservation toolbox is a simple tattoo machine.
Tattoos were first used by our North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, which surveys springs in Florida and Texas using volunteers (no experience required!). The team does a lot of work with softshell turtles in these areas and the traditional methods for marking turtles (filing a notch in the shell) were ineffective with these species because of their cartilaginous shell. Andy Weber, one of our volunteers, had heard about tattooing bear lips and modified the technique for use on softshell turtles. A unique number tattooed on the underside of the turtle allows scientists to identify the turtles as they are recaptured over the years, providing a variety of information on things like growth, movement, health and even nesting in some instances.
The TSA has been also part of a highly successful collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Myanmar since 2009. The Burmese Star Tortoise was wiped out by poachers who collected them for the pet trade because of their beautiful shell. However, thanks to captive breeding programs spearheaded by the TSA, there are now more than 4,000 Star Tortoises at several facilities throughout Myanmar and the time is right to release some of these animals back to their native habitat. Late last year, a true conservation milestone was achieved when we reintroduced the first group of Burmese star tortoises back to the wild.
Something that made this program unique is the use of tattoos in the process. Before release, all of the tortoises received two tattoos on their shell – an identification number on one side and Buddhist iconography on the other. The “Sadapawa” symbol, a part of Nat (spirit) worship in Myanmar, not only lowers the tortoises’ value on the black market, but more importantly it infers that harming of these tortoises will invoke the wrath of the local Nat spirit, the White Horse Rider and that harm will come to those who touch it. Prior to release, the tortoises were donated to a local monastery in a public ceremony and blessed by the Monks. It is presumed that the protection offered by the Monks, the Nat spirit symbol, and the disfiguration of the shells from the tattoos will discourage poachers from collecting the tortoises for the black market pet trade.
One of the TSA’s most ambitious ventures in recent years was the opening of the Turtle Survival Center (TSC) in South Carolina. Here, some of the world’s rarest turtles and tortoises (some of which no longer exist in the wild) are managed in breeding programs by a highly specialized staff. Everyone at the TSC is dedicated wholeheartedly to the cause of preventing turtle extinctions. It is a labor of love and several of the team members have used tattoos as a way to commemorate their passion for turtles and tortoises.
Whether we’re tattooing tortoises or people, simple tattoos make big differences around the globe. We invite you to learn more about the TSA and how you can get involved in our mission of zero turtle extinctions.