In the Var, the department just west of mine (remember St Tropez? Yeah, well near there!), a few of one of the most endangered species of tortoise in Europe, exist; the Hermanni, Hermanni. There are small populations: here in the Var (in the forest area on the map), on the Island of Corsica and then a handful in West and central Italy and Eastern Spain. They just happen to be the subject of one of my WIPs, so my research took me, last weekend, to a conservation village in the Var. Gonfaron Tortoise Village (just south of Le Luc on the map, and ten minutes from where my Dad lives) was created to conserve this, and other varieties of Testudines, as well as breed and release them back into their wild habitats.
One of the fun facts about tortoises is their relatively near relationship to the period of dinosaurs. Many thousands of years ago, due to continental drift, France was actually two thousand KM further south, near where we find North Africa today. This is why many fossil remains have been discovered, suggesting that during the Cretaceous and Tertiary Period (around 65 million years ago), numerous giant tortoises and turtles lived in France. The most famous giant tortoise, the Cheirogaster Perpiniana, is from Perpignan in the SW of France. He disappeared around 2.5 million years ago but had a shell measuring 120cm, very much like today’s Spurred Tortoise.
Tortoises, turtles and terrapins (Testudines) are wild animals and don’t adapt well to being deprived of their freedom. Of the 315 species of Testudines in the world, more than 2/3 are endangered; or their numbers are seriously reducing. Some of the threats include: tortoise eating, use of tortoise products for traditional medicine, environmental deterioration (urbanization, forest fires, deforestation), illegal collection and breeding for sale as pets in the West. The most threatened are from Africa and Asia, and in the village, I have to say the most beautiful I saw were the Madagascan tortoises (though I don’t remember seeing any when I visited the Island).
The Hermanni Hermanni, which I have been researching, love the hot and dry climate of the Southern Mediterranean (who doesn’t?)– a climate very prone, of course, to forest fires. I remember well the heatwave and subsequent forest fires of 2003 in Southern France! An estimated 3,000 tortoises died following the destruction of 20,000 hectares of land.
The Tortoise Village is not a zoo. All the reptiles were given by private people or seized by the customs. They do not buy them or collect them from the wild. Nurturing, giving medical care, breeding and release into the wild (along with educating the public) are their goals. As you enter the village, one of the first things you see is the Medical Clinic, where they care for around 300 tortoises per year. I saw one with rhinitis, one with eye troubles and a poor little chap who had been run over by a lawn mower. There is a nursery for the real littl’uns and a separate area for the adolescents, who need special care until fully grown at 5-8 years. Halfway through the village is the opportunity to watch a short open-air film on a female Hermanni laying her three eggs and burying them well beneath the earth’s surface. We follow the 3-5 month incubation period through to the autumn rains softening the earth for the hatchling to break out of his egg and burrow his way to the surface. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and was happy to see many kids excited to learn about this quaint and ancient reptile.
May I finish by recommending a wonderful nonfiction book for children, entitled The Last Tortoise: A Tale of Extinction in our Lifetime. By Craig B Stanford. The author is a very literary biologist and impassioned nature lover, who manages to craft some compelling prose about the beauty of this reptile and the serious threat it is facing world wide. It is a great addition to the library of any young conservationist, though he is a little controversial in his attack on all reptile and amphibian breeders.
In observing afresh these plodding, yet elegant animals, I do understand why over the centuries, tortoises have been the wise heroes in so many stories.