- Conservationists are releasing red-footed tortoises back into El Impenetrable National Park in Argentina’s Chaco province, in an effort to reintroduce the species to the region.
- The species is so rarely seen in the Gran Chaco region of Argentina that it’s believed to be locally extinct there.
- Red-footed tortoises are under threat due to the illegal pet trade, habitat destruction, and hunting for meat consumption.
- The species is the latest being reintroduced by Rewilding Argentina, which has already brought back species like jaguars and marsh deer to El Impenetrable.
Red-footed tortoises are so rarely seen in the Gran Chaco region of Argentina that they’re considered to be locally extinct. But now, the species is plodding its way toward a comeback.
On May 19, conservationists working with Rewilding Argentina and partner organizations released 10 red-footed tortoises (Chelonoidis carbonarius) into El Impenetrable National Park in Chaco province, a 130,000-hectare (321,000-acre) park in northern Argentina, close to the Paraguay border. In the coming months, the team plans to release another 30 tortoises.
Since the establishment of El Impenetrable National Park in 2014, the park has been the site of several rewilding projects, including the reintroduction of jaguars (Panthera onca) and marsh deer (Blastocerus dichotomus). But this is the first time Rewilding Argentina has worked with reptiles, said Sebastián Di Martino, the conservation director of the organization.
“It’s very important to bring this species back to the country,” Di Martino told Mongabay. “We expect that the species will start to fulfill their ecological role [as] a seed disperser, which will be very good for the forest. And, of course, [we hope] that they become a part of this new economy that we are trying to build in this region.”
Red-footed tortoises have been under pressure from an illegal pet trade that’s booming in Paraguay and Bolivia, Di Martino said. Additional threats include habitat destruction and targeted hunting for meat consumption.
The 40 red-footed tortoises in this reintroduction project were all rescued from the illegal pet trade in Paraguay, and then quarantined in Argentina before their release into the park, according to Di Martino.
“When they were in quarantine, we started to offer them the fruits [found in] El Impenetrable to see which ones they liked more, and also to see if they accepted those fruits,” he said. “Really, they eat almost everything. They even like to eat meat.”
The released tortoises will be tracked by VHF transmitters attached to their shells. So far, they’ve been traveling about 150 meters (nearly 500 feet) further into the park each day, Di Martino said.
Two of the released females have also laid eggs, which Di Martino said is “very good news.” He added the team doesn’t know if the eggs are fertile, but they will monitor them closely.
Di Martino said he believes the red-footed tortoises will be safe from traffickers in their new home, not only because they will be in a protected national park, but also because of the community work that Rewilding Argentina is currently doing. For instance, the group recently helped put on a children’s puppet show about the tortoises and other animals being reintroduced to the park, in order to raise awareness about their ecological and economical importance to the area, he said.
“People are starting to appreciate all these animals because they are starting to associate them with employment and local development,” Di Martino said.
If the tortoises successfully colonize the park, they can help regenerate forests through the large quantities of fruit they eat, which helps disperse seeds, according to Rewilding Argentina. In fact, the species has been called the “gardeners of the forest.”
“Heading into the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, we need to act now to save species,” Kristine Tompkins, president of Tompkins Conservation, a partner of Rewilding Argentina, and the U.N. environment patron of protected areas, said in a statement. “Only their presence can restore complete ecosystems and ensure planetary health for all.”
Banner image caption: One of the red-footed tortoises reintroduced to El Penetrable National Park in Argentina. Image courtesy of Tompkins Conservation.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
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