How Western Cape fires and drought have affected critically endangered geometric tortoises

by CapeNature

The Geometric Tortoise (Psammobates geometricus) is a beautiful specimen of the chelonian family. Its domed geometric-like hard shell, striking summer-sunset yellow and black radiating pattern makes it the Fabergé egg of the tortoise world. When the terrestrial tortoise is fully grown, it reaches only five to six inches. Unfortunately, this already endangered species has been hard hit by wildfires and the ongoing drought in the Western Cape region.

We caught up with CapeNature’s Ecological Coordinator, Vicki Hudson, at the successful ‘Conservation Detection Dog’ talk hosted by Wild Magazine in collaboration with Cape Union Mart and CapeNature at the Cape Union Mart Adventure Centre. Hudson also elaborated on how the Western Cape fires and drought have affected her research. The Conservation Detection Dog programme was first introduced in 2012 as a tool to survey geometric turtles and help conservation efforts.

Rapid wildfires in the region have caused the terrestrial tortoises to get heat stressed which causes their urine to pass in clots, she said.

The geometric tortoise (Psammobates geometricus) or ‘suurpootjie’ as it’s locally known is one of the rarest tortoises in the world.

“When the urine coagulates it gets dark red. When you stress the tortoise or disturb it, it sets up a defense mechanism, so that’s the first thing it does. When this is done when it hasn’t had water, the urine gets dark blood red and gets congealed.”

Exposure to predators due to the absence of vegetation and food remains a problem, Hudson concluded.

The Western Cape experienced a severe drought in 2018 and this not only affected humans but wildlife and their habitat. Hudson adds that because there was little to no rainfall in the region, this resulted in a lack of vegetation for the tortoises which also had an impact on her research.

“The areas haven’t been able to develop because there is no water. Because the tortoises get heat stressed they can’t rehydrate themselves, so we only started our research on September last year. We normally go from mid-April to October for normal research.”

The interruption of surveys also means that conservation canines like Brin, the Conservation Detection Dog, is out of a job during downtime.

You may ask what Conservation Detection dogs do? A conservation detection dog team works to locate biological targets of interests; this includes live fauna, flora and carcass, by helping professionals obtain information about target species.

Conservation Detection dogs are trained for tortoise detection over a six-month period by CapeNature Ecological Coordinator, Vicki Hudson.

In 2012, CapeNature initiated the pilot project to investigate the use of conservation detection dogs to improve geometric tortoise surveying techniques. This specific project is the first live target detection work of its kind in the country.

Together with local conservation partners the University of the Western Cape, Elandsberg Nature Reserve, Southern African Tortoise Conservation Trust – a subsidiary of the Turtle Conservancy and the Working Dogs for Conservation, Hudson has expanded the research around geometric tortoises.

The geometric tortoise (Psammobates geometricus) or ‘suurpootjie’ as it’s locally known is one of the rarest tortoises in the world. It was thought to extinct in the late 1950s. Between the years 1982 and 1994, it was categorised in the ‘Red List assessment’, placing it as ‘vulnerable’. In 1996, this changed to ‘endangered’ and since 2015, it has been assessed as ‘critically endangered’.

For more information on geometric tortoises and conservation detection dogs, click on links below:

Conservation Detection Dog Project  

CapeNature Launches First Conservation Detection Dog Project For Tortoises In South Africa

Protecting the geometric tortoise: A conservation case study

Published in Care for Nature

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