The Turtle Guardian

Hometown Heroes, People
on March 11, 2001

When the conversation turns to protecting wildlife, the cute and cuddly creatures often get the most attention. But what about the other guysthe scaly, leathery ones? Whos looking out for them?

His name is Dr. Peter Pritchard. And he happens to think that turtles, though not particularly cuddly, are especially endearing with their gentle eyes and toothless grins. More importantly, he knows many species of this slow-moving reptile are dwindling in number, and something must be done to save them.

Pritchard is considered by his contemporaries as one of the worlds foremost experts on turtlesof which almost 300 species still exist worldwide. But though his knowledge is vasthe has written six turtle books, including the Encyclopedia of Turtleswhat really sets Pritchard apart is his penchant for traveling to remote corners of the world in his quest to save as many turtle species as possible from extinction. And he does so personally, talking directly with the people involved no matter what their language or how ancient their customs.

Pritchard heads up the Chelonian Research Institute (named after the Greek word for turtle) based in Oviedo, Fla., (pop. 20,073) and for nearly 40 years has conducted research and conservation efforts in about 19 countries, often in areas where hotels dont exist.

I go to places that are not on the tourist circuit, he says.

One of his most successful efforts has been in the South American nation of Guyana, where the Arawak Indians once knew little about sea turtles except that they were tastyso tasty in fact, that their numbers were dwindling.

After studying turtles there off and on for some years, Pritchard developed a relationship with the Arawaks based on mutual respect. They knew his work was valid, and he knew they needed the turtles for survival.

I couldnt just go in and knock heads with them because they didnt agree with my philosophy (of not eating a species into extinction), he says.

Pritchard slowly worked with the Arawaks, exchanging food and ideas, and deepening their understanding of the turtles importance to Earths ecosystems. The Arawaks now monitor every aspect of the turtles lives, from where they make their nests to how many eggs hatch, then report their findings to Pritchard. And they police the nests against poachers. Pritchard also taught the Arawaks how to raise chickens for food instead of dining on the turtles.

Now, their turtle-hunting days are over, because protecting turtles has become part of their tribal custom.

Human consumption isnt the only danger to turtle survival, Pritchard says. Loss of habitat is a factor, as are natural enemies such as raccoons, who feed on turtle eggs. And nests often are inadvertently disturbed by humans and animals. Still, their edibility is the greatest threat to turtles.

Pritchard currently is working with people in Southeast Asia, where the turtle is considered a delicacy.

The soft-shell turtle of Vietnam and China is elusive, Pritchard says. Nowadays, it occasionally shows itself, but rarely. And thats because its nearing extinction. By gaining an understanding of Asian culture, Pritchard hopes to expand the regions interest in preservation, as he did with the Arawak.

China has a growing interest in conservation Its just a matter of nursing that spark, he says.

Between global jaunts, Oxford-educated Pritchard heads back to Florida and the 6,000 specimens of what he calls one of natures weird and wonderful experiments. The institutes unrivaled collection includes skeletons, exhibits, and live turtles, and attracts visitors from throughout the world.

His greatest strength lies in helping people love the animals while providing scientific data. He reaches across the gulf between professionals and turtle enthusiasts and bridges it nicely, says Dr. Anders Rhodin of the Chelonian Research Foundation in Lunenberg, Mass.

Pritchard grew up in Ireland, where no turtles live in the wild, but his father taught anatomy, so he became fascinated with bonesthe turtles in particular. He earned his doctorate in zoology at the University of Florida and worked for the Florida Audubon Society before heading the institute, but hes traveled the world researching reptiles for years.

Ive had very nice conversations about turtles with cannibals, outlaws, desperadoes, Richard Nixon, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Indira Gandhi. Its a safe subject.