What 70 Famous Turtles Can Teach Us About Conservation Stories • The Revelator
8 mins read

What 70 Famous Turtles Can Teach Us About Conservation Stories • The Revelator

Last November, conservationists carefully moved 70 young, critically endangered Mojave desert tortoises to the reptile’s natural habitat at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. The tortoises were hatched and raised in captivity, and the team — a collaboration between U.S. Air Force officials at the base, the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Springs — hoped the animals would survive the rigors of life in the wild, where crows would try to peck at their shells and coyotes could attack them.

It took a while before we learned how they were coping: Shortly after being released into the wild, the reptiles would retreat to underground burrows and hibernate, or become inactive, for the winter.

But six months later, in April of this year, news of their fate emerged: the turtles emerged from their burrows healthier and stronger than ever, marking an important milestone in the ongoing story of turtle conservation.

Two hands in blue gloves hold up a baby turtle against a background of desert greenery.
Photo: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

The news quickly made headlines across the country, with local media reporting the result, as did the Associated Press, which reported it internationally. Even celebrity-focused media People magazine introduced the project. The media blitz showed that while conservation projects can be expensive and time- and energy-intensive, coordinated efforts to help species come back from near extinction, or even thrive, can work.

There are dozens of conservation success stories every year, from the growth of the bald eagle population to the birth of the black-footed ferret, the release of a zebra shark to the protection of red wolf habitat. But few of them gain as much publicity as the turtles in spring.

So why did the turtle story resonate so widely when so many other conservation stories have failed to reach the public? The answer may reflect not only the state of people’s views about our impact on the environment and our opinions about animals, but also the state of the news industry and what we report.

Research published in 2022 by Carlos Corvalan, an advisor for risk assessment and global environmental change at the World Health Organization, indicates that people often feel overwhelmed by today’s biodiversity and climate change crises, which can lead to a sense of helplessness and cause them to take action less action, nothing more.

Bad news about habitat destruction, the effects of greenhouse gases on our atmosphere, and species struggling is rampant. It seems society is hungry for positive stories.

“At this time, at any time, conservation can be a huge letdown,” says James Danoff-Burg, director of conservation at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. But the turtle’s story was about how the reptiles were doing well in their new environment after months of hibernation. “This,” he says, “is a success.”

Another reason the turtle story has gained so much popularity may be that turtles are cute and harmless. Unlike endangered predators, turtles won’t hurt anyone or take down prey with their fangs. Studies of stories about hyenas and sharks, for example, show that conservation efforts focused on these species are less popular with certain age groups who find them terrifying.

Although turtles may not be classified as charismatic megafauna — animals that are universally recognized as popular, attractive, and well-known — they have adorable characteristics and are adorably clumsy.

“We identify with those big eyes,” Danoff-Burg says. “The turtles are just so funny and weird and alien, but adorable. I think that sold the story as well as anything else.”

A tiny turtle with numbers written on its chest is held aloft by a hand in a blue glove.
Photo: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

Concerned groups also have communications departments that help tell the stories of the species their organizations care for. Typically, researchers themselves have to tell the stories of successes in the field, but media departments can help tell those stories to a wider audience, says Melissa Merrick, deputy director of recovery ecology at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

“They really did a great job of elevating the work we were doing,” he says. “Not every organization is fortunate enough to have such a great communications team, and that’s something that’s really overlooked in a lot of preservation work, the importance of getting the story out there and letting people know about some of the victories.”

If conservationists or public relations professionals want to replicate the success of the Mojave Desert tortoise story, the task can be daunting, says Betsy Hildebrandt, senior vice president of external affairs for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “A great, compelling story often falls flat, while one that seems irrelevant may have a chance,” she says.

In more than three decades of working in communications, she’s seen how uncontrollable factors often affect the amount of exposure a study or success will have in the media. It can be intense news cycles, whether a reporter or editor is interested in a particular genre, or whether viewers find a genre cute and cuddly.

“The best thing a PR department can do is put together a compelling pitch, be smart and reach out to reporters who may have covered something similar in the past, (and) try to create an exclusive piece that can then be promoted on social media to get a wider reach,” he says.

In the absence of good news, pessimistic and sad stories often attract more attention, so the environmental community should promote even small victories.

“There are so many success stories,” Danoff-Burg says. “We just don’t tell those stories very well.” We often don’t advertise the small victories in conservation success stories, such as efforts to mitigate threats like roads or poaching.

Some media outlets understand this dynamic, which has led organizations like the Solutions Journalism Network to promote stories with positive messages that can show readers why and how people responded to a particular issue.

Sure, sometimes even good news doesn’t make a splash. But even if a conservation story doesn’t grab the public’s attention the first time a breakthrough happens, a species’ comeback can become an even more compelling story over time.

Take the black-footed ferret, for example. The species was thought to be extinct in the early 1980s until a farmer’s dog found it in the wild a few years later. Biologists named the ferret Willa and collected her genetic material. Decades later, they created her genetic clone in 2021 to help the species recover. News of the genetic advancement has made headlines in places like Science, National GeographicAND Smithsonian MagazineBiologists recently used the same genetic material to create two younger sisters, also clones, generating even more headlines.

Organizations that have contributed to the Mojave desert tortoises’ success may have more messages to spread in the future as they continue to study issues such as what makes tortoises successful at nesting, whether specific females are more likely to produce young that are more successful in cold weather, and whether individual differences in behavior change how they respond to predators. All of this could make conservation efforts more effective in the short term, Danoff-Burg says.

As scientists and biologists learn more about how to best protect and support many other threatened and endangered species—and the habitats they rely on—conservationists will have more stories to tell about their successes. This could benefit both people and animals.

After all, everyone likes a good story.

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is an award-winning freelance journalist who focuses on science and the environment, writing for publications including Scientific American, Audubon, and Undark from her home in Chicago.