The Tennessee Aquarium isn't just celebrating turtles this year — it's also working to save them.
Experts say turtles are an amazing example of biological adaptability and endurance and have carved out niches in practically every habitat, with an abundance of species calling the Tennessee River Valley and the Southeastern United States home. However, they are also extremely threatened.
Whether they're hidden in suitcases, stuffed into socks or shipped without a return address, wildlife traffickers attempt to smuggle thousands of turtles out of the U.S. each year, according to the aquarium.
But when most people think about wildlife trafficking, they think about ivory tusks from elephants or rhinoceros or the exotic pet trade, said Thom Benson, spokesman for the Tennessee Aquarium.
Many people don't realize that nearly 60% of turtle species are threatened because of illegal trade.
This year, the Tennessee Aquarium is celebrating "The Year of the Turtle" with the opening of a new gallery and a turtle nursery on March 13 and a slew of other special events, but it also recently partnered with 14 other zoos and aquariums to combat turtle trafficking through the Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) American Turtle program.
"When the turtles we're used to seeing are literally being taken from their homes, it's heartbreaking. When you see pictures of a pen with 200 to 400 box turtles all piled on top of one another waiting to be shipped into the trade, it's devastating," said Dave Collins, director of forests and animal behavior for the Tennessee Aquarium, in a statement. "It's a serious issue for us. This is a problem that is far too big for one place to solve."
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums recently approved the formation of the SAFE American Turtle program, an extension of the SAFE program originally launched in 2015.
"Most people are unaware of the rampant problem of turtle trafficking, which has driven some species to the brink of extinction," said Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the association. "Turtle trafficking is a critical issue that compounds other threats they face, such as habitat loss and pollution. Educating people about these threats, and how to be smart consumers, will benefit turtles and the habitats on which they rely."
Through the program, animal care specialists are joining forces with state wildlife agencies, academics, non-government organizations and law enforcement to tackle turtle trade on a level no one organization could manage on its own, Collins said.
INITIAL SAFE AMERICAN TURTLE PROGRAM PARTNERS
— Akron Zoo
— Bronx Zoo
— Chicago Zoological Society / Brookfield Zoo
— Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
— Maryland Zoo
— New England Aquarium
— Potter Park Zoological Gardens
— Roger Williams Park Zoo
— Tennessee Aquarium
— Toledo Zoo
— Turtle Conservancy
— Turtle Survival Alliance
— Zoo Knoxville
— Zoo New England
"I saw that there was a need for a closer working relationship and more cooperation and the ability to share resources," he added. "Through this program we can do much more with the resources we have, with very few extra resources required."
The aquarium already is housing and taking care of more than 50 confiscated turtles. In a small room below the aquarium's main exhibits, animal care specialist MacKenzie Strickland is one of several employees helping to care for the rescued turtles. Some of them can fit in the palm of your hand.
Others, such as adult mapp turtles, are already the size of dinner plates. A smaller group of mapp turtles spent 30 days in a cardboard box without food or water before they were discovered.
"They are survivors," Strickland said.
One of the problems when trafficked turtles are found is that law enforcement, airport or shipping security personnel don't have the resources to care for them. Sometimes a box of turtles might end up at an international airport, and if it is even caught before it's being put onto a plane, officials still let it go because they can't care for the turtles.
"When agencies need to confiscate or seize wildlife, they should be free to do that and not be worried about taking care of turtles in the back room," Collins said.
Turtles are commonly trafficked because they are used as pets, food and in traditional medicines.
When confiscated, the animals are often malnourished or sick, sometimes already dead. Depending on their health and exposure to humans, many of them can't be returned to the wild, but it depends, Strickland said.
Animals that have adapted to being taken care of by humans might struggle with feeding themselves in the wild or might have been exposed to health threats, so they end up spending their lives in zoos, nature centers or places such as the Tennessee Aquarium.
The aquarium's new exhibits and celebrations this year are also meant to help educate people about the perils of turtle species — and what they can do to help. The new "Turtles of the World" gallery features four large exhibits that compare and contrast two of the world's biodiversity hotspots — the Southeast United States and Southeast Asia.
An interactive game allows visitors to explore how to design their yards and landscaping to make them more turtle friendly or how to help a turtle if they find one in the road. The turtle nursery showcases rare rescued species being cared for by the aquarium, including some that are extinct in the wild, Benson said.
The SAFE American Turtles program will focus on protecting five species, four of which are considered federally threatened or are under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: the wood turtle, bog turtle, Blanding's turtle and spotted turtle. The fifth species, known as box turtles, was chosen to serve as an ambassador for the program.
For years, Collins has watched the increase in North American turtle trafficking and seen Asian markets filled with turtles firsthand. After such a long period of decline, Collins said he's excited at the prospect of working with so many others to save these animals.
"The longterm well-being of turtles is really important to me," Collins said in a statement. "The idea that so many people can work together toward a common cause of making sure turtles are safe is very exciting."
Contact Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.