Spring Desert Tortoise Translocation

This tortoise set her sights on eating a cactus bloom immediately after being released.

The long-anticipated 2011 desert tortoise translocation was a success! We successfully translocated nearly 200 healthy desert tortoises to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-approved translocation site here in southern Nevada. The San Diego Zoo is the only organization approved by FWS to return desert tortoises to the desert; that’s because we put tortoises through a full battery of medical and behavioral tests for at least a year to ensure that they are completely healthy before they leave the facility. We fitted a total of 34 desert tortoises with radio transmitters before release, and now experienced telemetry technicians have been following the signal from these transmitters for two months now, tracking and studying the tortoises’ daily movements and habitat use. They have reported back to us that the tortoises are thriving in their new habitat!

The team evaluates the health of a wild desert tortoise.

While at the translocation site, seasonal research assistant Jeremy spotted a resident, a wild desert tortoise naturally living in the area. We cautiously approached her, something only permitted authorized biologists are legally allowed to do. We conducted a health evaluation, and after seeing that she was in great condition, we carefully placed a radio transmitter on her shell. The telemetry team will track her movements, observing any future interactions and behaviors with the newly translocated tortoises. It will also be important for us to compare her movements with those of the translocated tortoises so we will know when the translocated tortoises start acting like normal wild animals.

I can speak for the entire staff at the Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center when I say that releasing these once-captive pet desert tortoises into the wild is the most rewarding part of our jobs! Translocation is incredibly important to wild populations of desert tortoises, as these populations have reportedly declined by approximately 90 percent in the past 30 years; it is estimated that there are only about 150,000 wild Mojave desert tortoises remaining in critical habitat.

Our mission is to play a significant role in the recovery of the desert tortoise and its habitat. Through translocation, we are well on our way to fulfilling our mission!

Pamela Flores is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoises Step Closer to the Wild.

5 Responses to Spring Desert Tortoise Translocation

  1. Congratulations Pamela! This is wonderful news. I am so happy that the tortoises are thriving in their new environment.

    I can understand how tracking these wonderful creatures will be of immeasurable help in determining how they are coping in their new surroundings. If it wasn’t for the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center the desert tortoise would be even more endangered. Thanks to everyone for their hard work and dedication. It is greatly appreciated.

    It was nice reading about the wild desert tortoise living in the area and how you are going to compare its movements with the translocated tortoises. It sounds interesting.

    I never miss an opportunity to visit the Galapagos Tortoise Exhibit at the San Diego Zoo –they are fun to watch and quite intelligent.

    Good luck to you Pamela and the entire staff at the Zoo’s DTCC. Thanks for keeping us updated on your adventures in the desert. :-)

  2. That is such good news Pamela. You and your team have done a wonderful job in a relatively short length of time. Nearly 200, is an amazing number of any creature to be released at one time.

  3. Pamela

    How much do one of those radio transmitters cost?

    And are you any closer to opening up the preserve to the public? This could generate alot of money!

    Rita Flores

  4. I know that tortoises are in trouble around the world, including the wonderful Galapagos tortoises. We adopted a baby desert tortoise from the Wild Animal Park in Palm Desert and raised him here in Lakeside for six years. We turned him over to a wonderful home where they care for many rescued tortoises, some which they have healed from severe injuries. The tortoise expert told me that Little T (our tortoise) was the first tortoise pet he had ever seen that was completely healthy. So I have a special place in my heart for tortoises.

    I am wondering if there are any safe places to release your tortoises into the wild in California. Borrego Springs, Joshua Tree, etc?

    • How wonderful that you raised a healthy desert tortoise – that’s such good news to hear. To answer your question about releasing desert tortoises to a safe place, it is actually illegal for anyone to release a desert tortoise into the wild due to the risk of disease transmission. Even pet desert tortoises that appear healthy and have lived a wonderful life in a loving home may be harboring diseases that they can spread to wild populations if they are released, and since desert tortoises are a threatened species, we can’t risk losing even one wild tortoise to an accidental illness. That’s why the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center is the only organization legally allowed to release desert tortoises into the wild. We put each animal through a full battery of medical and behavioral exams so we can be certain that they will not transmit diseases to wild desert tortoises when we release them. Please check out our most recent blog about translocation for more information!