Saving Turtles, Building a Friendship

Saving the world's vanishing wildlife and wild places is a monumental task no matter which way you look at it. As hard as we try, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Gardens is not able to achieve this goal alone. Luckily we have amazing conservation legacy partners that we work with, both locally and globally, that help us fight for the species and habitats that are incapable of fighting for themselves. One of those partners is the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) which works to prevent the extinction of tortoise and freshwater turtle species all over the world.

Last year I had the opportunity to travel to India, one of the many countries in which TSA works. While I was there, I thought it might be interesting to visit some of the programs in India and see how the OKC Zoo is helping the TSA protect this imperiled group of animals. I was put in touch with Nariman Vasifdar, who at the time was the Coordinator for the Chambal River Project. Nari ended up picking me up at the airport in the northwest state of Assam, and after a meal and a long car ride to Kaziranga National Park, we quickly became friends. We spent our early mornings looking at the incredible bird diversity right outside our hotel rooms, and walked in the jungles late at night hoping to photograph some of the reptiles and amphibians that call that area home. During the day we accomplished a variety of tasks including assessing the status of an assurance colony of Burmese Mountain Tortoises at the Dimapur Zoo. We gave snake identification and snake bite first aid talks at two of the largest tea gardens in the world. We promoted and built community relations for the Nature Discovery Center that was being built. Finally we visited temples that had Black Softshell Turtles, which are extinct in the wild, living in their ponds.

It had been a year since I last saw Nari. We kept in close contact, sending each other photos of snakes we have found, talking about research projects that we have been involved with, or even just ranting about how hard our respective grad schools are! This last week, Nari traveled to the US to visit family and made a quick stop in Houston, Texas. With him visiting so close, I had to go down and show him the same hospitality that he showed me in Assam. I contacted the Director of the TSA’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG), Eric Munscher, and started planning something very special for Nari.

I have had the opportunity to help TSA’s NAFTRG a lot over the last few years. I usually drive down to Austin or New Braunfels, Texas and help them monitor the populations of turtles that live in the springs found in that area. Eric also has a project in Houston that is assessing and monitoring the population of one of the most iconic turtle species in the world, the Alligator Snapping Turtle! Eric was nice enough to trap these dinosaurs of the turtle world the weekend Nari and I would be in town. With a little bit of luck, Nari was able to witness what the TSA was doing right here in the US, and get to view and hold one of the coolest species of turtles on the planet in its native habitat.

Saving these disappearing species and habitats would be completely impossible without the cooperation of like-minded, passionate people from all over the world. These partnerships allow us to trade our knowledge and experiences to accomplish monumental tasks with ease. They also allow us to make lifelong friends, even if they are a half a world away.

-Brett Bartek, animal caretaker

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