Desert Tortoise: Rainy Day Translocation

Pamela carefully places a desert tortoise into the Mojave Desert.

It’s 5 a.m. and a busy morning for the staff at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas, Nevada. We are anxious for the big day ahead, because it’s time for our fall translocation of desert tortoises back to the Mojave Desert, where they will live freely in their native habitat.

This day begins unlike most days in the Las Vegas Valley; the air is cool, and dark, ominous clouds linger over the city. As our mini-caravan of 3 vehicles, 10 people, and 72 tortoises head south on the I-15 toward the U.S. Fish & Wildlife-approved release site, we enjoy a torrential downpour of rain! The clouds are so dark, and the wind and rain are so strong, that it’s difficult to see the vehicles ahead of us. It has been a long, hot, dry summer, and we are thrilled to see the rain, but we think that perhaps this may not be the best day for hiking and releasing tortoises. But only moments later the storm passes, the skies are clear, and it’s another beautiful morning in the Mojave Desert.

The DTCC team provides fluids to a tortoise about to be released.

When we arrive at the release site, DTCC staff members administer fluids to the tortoises, ensuring they are well hydrated for their new journey. We take our time, because we want to give every tortoise the best chance of survival, and providing them with these extra fluids may carry them through a period of unexpected drought in the months to come.

Once the final tortoise is released, we take a deep breath, admire the beautiful landscape, and head back to civilization. But on the way, we discovered a wild tortoise crossing a paved road. Normally, we would watch the tortoise from a distance, ensuring its safe arrival to the other side of the road, but not this time. In the distance we see a fast-moving vehicle heading straight toward us, so we immediately jump out of our truck, and Paul, one of our seasonal research assistants, quickly but carefully moves the tortoise off the road to safety several hundred yards into the desert. What a great way to end the day; we saved a wild tortoise from possible injury or death.

The desert tortoise moments before its rescue from an oncoming vehicle.

Every translocation we conduct takes place at a release site here in southern Nevada that is approved by our partners at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Nevada Department of Wildlife, and the Bureau of Land Management. The San Diego Zoo is the only organization approved by USFWS 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 they are completely healthy before they leave the facility.

Pamela Flores is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Spring Desert Tortoise Translocation.

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