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FL Press: Overharvesting in Asia has made the species endangered; kids try to help.

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Posted by: W von Papinešu at Sun Nov 21 21:23:53 2004  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papinešu ]  

FLORIDA TIMES-UNION (Jacksonville) 18 November 04 Students accept role in saving Asian turtles - Overharvesting in Asia has made the species endangered; kids try to help. (Beth Kormanik)
The baby turtles are part pet, part science project.
On a recent Tuesday, three Sandalwood High School students hovered over 10 hatchlings, rare Vietnamese pond turtles each smaller than a half dollar.
The students held the turtles between vise-like calipers to measure length, height and width. The shy turtles kept their heads inside their shells, though almost all of them squirmed and moved their legs.
Junior Tiffany Csicsek gently grasped hatchling No. 5.
"Hi, cutie," she said softly.
Tiffany and other members of the school's herpetology club aren't only learning about a rare and endangered species, they're part of the effort to save it.
Under the direction of teacher Mike Monlezun, students are raising the hatchlings as part of a conservation effort to stem the Asian turtle crisis. The students will keep the turtles for three years and then return them to Vietnam. The offspring of these turtles will be released to live on their own.
"You actually can hold in your hands and see the animal you're talking about," Tiffany said. "Hopefully, they'll allow us to put them into the wild."
The Asian turtle crisis arose when people in Asia over-harvested wild turtles for food, medicine or pets. The practices pushed the pond turtles, known as Mauremys annamensis, to the brink of extinction.
Monlezun said Sandalwood is the second school in the country to participate in the conservation effort through the Asian Turtle Consortium, a network that focuses on captive breeding programs to save threatened species. He collected 40 turtle hatchlings from Allapattah Flats Turtle Preserve in Port St. Lucie, kept 10 for his students and distributed the rest to schools around Northeast Florida.
Vic Morgan, president of the Jacksonville Herpetological Society, said the conservation effort involves breeding turtles but needs to be extended to educate natives of Asia about the dangers of over-harvesting. He said he hoped the turtles raised in America would be sent to schools in Vietnam to continue the conservation program.
Other schools participating in the Vietnamese pond turtle conservation effort include Forrest High, James Weldon Johnson Middle and Jacksonville Beach and Kernan Trail elementary schools in Duval County and Ridgeview High School in Clay County.
Working with students can make a difference, he said.
"There's a lot of tradition and culture that is in the mix," Morgan said. "It's kind of hard to change culture overnight. The only way you can is one generation at a time."
Monlezun, a past president of the Jacksonville society, is no stranger to the conservation effort, or to getting students interested in amphibians and reptiles. He already created a preserve for six gopher tortoises, a species of special concern, in the school's courtyard, and his classroom is home to about 30 snakes.
Sophomores Scott Waffle and Mark Kaiser both come in during lunch to clean up after the turtles and play with them. Scott, wearing a herpetology club T-shirt, keeps a close eye on the hatchlings. He noticed that they get wrinkled when they spend time out of the water. His family always has liked reptiles and amphibians. He owns three snakes and, according to family lore, one of his brothers once ate the pet turtle.
Scott now realizes his role in turtle conservation.
"The position they're in now in the world, why not ?" he said. "We're making sure while we're here we take care of them."
Scott and Mark made the 3 1/2-hour drive with Monlezun to Port St. Lucie to pick up the hatchlings. They both wrote papers about the experience.
In his essay, Mark called the trip "a very exciting day." He described the critters they encountered, including an alligator sunning itself, a dead water snake, and a live pigmy rattlesnake. He was amazed at the number of species at the turtle breeder's home.
"We had finally headed back home," he wrote, "and I hope I remember this day for the rest of my life."
* For more information on Asian turtle conservation, go to To learn about the Sandalwood Herpetology Club, visit, keyword: turtles.
Students accept role in saving Asian turtles


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