Book Review

Alejandra Manjarrez

Craig B. Stanford:
The Last Tortoise: A Tale of Extinction in Our Lifetime.

Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (May 15, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0674049926
ISBN-13: 978-0674049925
Price: 20.99 EUR

Race for Survival

Photo: Phoenix Permaculture Guild

The future of tortoises is uncertain and their biggest threat is human predation. Craig Stanford takes us closer to these creatures, showing us their biology and analysing their current situation.

Tortoises have always been associated with longevity: few vertebrates live as long as them (from 10 to over 250 years, depending on species and living conditions). But ironically, their permanence on Earth is not granted. Their life cycle, slow and steady, makes them vulnerable to the speed with which humans are violating their ecological niches and existence.

Craig Stanford, a US biological anthropologist from the University of Southern California, is mainly known for his work on great apes and monkeys. Alongside this, he has always had a passion for tortoises: on his website, Standford states that he “is involved in the biology and conservation of endangered tortoises in southeast Asia”. This interest is reflected in his new book, The Last Tortoise. It is written for the general public in an attempt to make us understand what tortoises are, their role in the ecosystems they inhabit and the threats to their survival. Standford’s message: “It’s imperative that we act quickly to protect the remaining wild tortoises”.

The tortoise and ...

The first chapters of the book introduce us to the world of these fascinating reptiles of the order Testudines. Stanford describes their anatomy and classification, their behaviour, origins and evolution. The characteristic shell of the chelonians (turtles and tortoises) dates back 220 million years. The oldest fossil presenting this structure has been found by palaeontologists in China and is named Odontochelys semitestacea, a creature that lived in a shallow marine environment. The development of this successful trait is not only amazing for its architecture, but also for the millions of years that it has remained unchanged.

But there is more to tortoises than their incredible anatomy and extreme life span. Tortoises, in common with all organisms, play an ecological role. They are mainly grazing herbivores, which makes them important seed dispersers. Some of them are also predators and scavengers, but also the prey of larger carnivores. Their extinction would not only mean losing beautiful and unique species but also altering the ecosystems to which they belong.

... the hare

In Aesop’s fable The Hare and the Tortoise, the reptile wins a race despite its slow speed. In the real world, however, humans – fast in comparison – emerge as the winners (at least in the short-term). Stanford makes an analysis of the most important problems that are currently affecting the survival of tortoises, which are mainly habitat loss and their use for food, pets or medicine.

The food market is a serious problem, both for turtles and tortoises, particularly in Asian countries. The author gives impressive and shocking numbers: the trade of live turtles for the Chinese food markets is worth around 700 million dollars per year and some other countries in the continent also serve as shipping points. A decade ago, a study found that more than 25 tons of tortoises and turtles were exported from Sumatra each week. There is plenty of illegal commerce involved in these markets, which reflect either the lack of reasonable regulations or corruption. The consumption of tortoises is massive and if it continues, wild turtles and tortoises will soon disappear.

Great diversity

Stanford doesn’t only hit us with the bad news; he also provides successful examples of strategies which confront the situation. Besides, it is very enjoyable to read nice anecdotes about these amazing creatures and to learn a little about different species. It includes a section with colour illustrations and photos of some of the more than forty species of living tortoise. Plus one of Lonesome George, of course, the most famous inhabitant of the Galápagos Islands. George is the last known survivor of the Pinta Island species (Geochelone nigra abingdoni) and known as, possibly, “the rarest creature in the world”.

In sum, the book makes for a great, if somewhat depressing, read. Let’s hope that plenty of decision-makers read it and then engage in the protection of these marvellous creatures.

Letzte Änderungen: 29.07.2013