The Opposite of Apocalypse

Conservationists are restoring a living tortoise fossil to its prehistoric range. Can we recreate nature?
Tortoise egg at Armendaris Ranch, New Mexico

Tortoise egg at Armendaris Ranch, New Mexico

Somewhere in Eden, after all this time,
does there still stand, abandoned, like
a ruined city, gates sealed with grisly nails,
the luckless garden?

— Ina Rousseau, “Eden”

How do I fill you with awe for the tortoise? Do I begin with its unforeseen beauty, the jet-and-topaz carapace, the forelegs that seem scaled with mother-of-pearl? With the fact that it can live for a year or more without food or water? That the females can sequester sperm, parcelling out the reproductive benefits of a single, awkward act of sex over years of solitary life? That it evolved some two million years — two million years — ahead of human beings? That the specific species in front of me, a bolson tortoise, known to science as Gopherus flavomarginatus, was unknown to science until 1959, the year nasa selected its first astronauts for human space flight, despite the fact that the animal is the largest land reptile in North America outside the tropics, can grow to the breadth and heft of a medicine ball, and can live for a hundred years? Or maybe all I need say is this: that the beasts will make eye contact and, with what one tortoise researcher calls “ecological wisdom,” appear to divine human intentions, whether good or ill.

Reader’s Note

Hover your pointer over the highlighted footnotes to read the author’s annotations.

The bolson tortoise, this miracle, stands beneath the Chihuahuan Desert sun. It shifts its weight. Then — yes — it blinks. “This is typical behaviour,” deadpans my companion, a wildlife habitat ecologist named Joe Truett.

I had come to the tortoise because I was tired of brooding about the present. To pay attention to the science of biology or its subject, the multiform living world, is to acknowledge the times as grim without relent. The best available evidence suggests that we are free-falling through what is widely known as the “sixth extinction” — a fading-to-black of species that recalls five earlier spasms of mass loss imprinted in the fossil record, from the Ordovician extinction, 439 million years ago, in which 85 percent of animal life died off, to the most recent Cretaceous extinction, which sidelined 76 percent, among them the dinosaurs. Our current trajectory can be measured any number of ways, from gross approximations that consider up to 38 percent of the planet’s life forms to be vulnerable to near-term extinction, to such precise injuries as the Central American deforestation that has left almost half the Americas’ wood thrushes in marginal wintering territory, where they succumb to predators at four times the usual rate. Examples emerge almost daily.1Jaded newspaper editors refer to such stories as “species of the week” pieces.

The biologist Norman Myers, who in 1979 authored the groundbreaking book on the sixth extinction, The Sinking Ark, alluded to a more encompassing term, the “great dying.” Extinction, after all, is the outcome of a process. Far more visible and constant is extirpation, a term that, in the life sciences, refers to the disappearance of particular species from particular places. For example: as a child, my back door spilled out onto rolling grasslands in which I knew the location of every fox den within two hours’ walk. Much of that prairie is now a suburb, and the foxes are gone. Extirpation is extinction made personal. Extinction is the accumulation of extirpation.

But there I go again. Brooding.

The bolson tortoise does not call to mind the present day. It is an incarnation of deep time, a shambling manifestation of antiquity. It is literally a dinosaur. In the pace of its movements, its habits, it seems reluctant to share the postmodern globe with you and me. In fact, it hardly does. The tortoise is exquisitely rare, with a wild population restricted to a remote series of desert bolsons (large basins) north of Torreón, Mexico, that is officially gazetted as the Bolsón de Mapimí but is more famously and forebodingly known as the Zona del Silencio. The independent Instituto de Ecología in Veracruz estimates a free-living tortoise population of 1,600.2This estimate is of the whole-cloth variety. Lucina Hernandez, a senior scientist for the institute who worked in the Mapimi Biosphere Reserve from 1984 to 2008, characterized the figure this way: “So little has been done with [the tortoise] in the wild lately that any estimate would be an unfounded guess.” To put that in perspective, the panda — that icon of endangerment — numbers exactly the same in the wild.

I could say, then, that the tortoise taking the sun in front of Truett and me was yet another member of the near-extinct menagerie, but that would be the bleak language of the present. In early autumn 2006, as senior biologist for the Turner Endangered Species Fund, Truett oversaw the transfer of twenty-six bolson tortoises from a private reserve in Elgin, Arizona, to the 150,000-hectare Armendaris Ranch, a property near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, that belongs to media billionaire and conservationist Ted Turner. During the fourhour drive, the animals, hunkered in open-top Rubbermaid bins, were transformed from captive endangered species into something more ambitious and perhaps quixotic. A play on words is unavoidable: the bolson tortoise was about to make prehistory.

For millennia, the Chihuahuan Desert of what came to be New Mexico was almost certainly the range of wild bolson tortoises. Then, about 10,000 years ago, late in the Pleistocene epoch, they disappeared. According to the fossil record, blackened tortoise shells, emptied of flesh, began to show up alongside the bones of an array of huge animals, or megafauna, in the fireside garbage dumps of human beings, a species then spreading rapidly across the Americas. The bolson tortoise project at Armendaris Ranch aims to redress that ancient age of extermination. When the tortoises arrived at Truth or Consequences, it marked the first deliberate restoration of a prehistoric species in the Americas. It is a homecoming that can’t help but raise questions, including one that qualifies, I think, as a doozy: when we look at nature, what are we actually seeing?

Truett and I move on, leaving behind the blinking, basking tortoise and threading between rakes of honey mesquite and staghorn cholla cactus. The earth is sepia and softly crusted, the air so dry it stirs a hard-wired fear. A wind blows. It blows the hat off your head and the sunglasses off your face and every trace of moisture off your skin and your teeth. “Wind is common here,” says Truett with the precision of a lifelong scientist. “Strong winds are common.” The tortoise burrows appear suddenly. They look like bomb craters, pits surrounded by wind-smoothed rings of ejecta. At the mouth of one, we surprise another tortoise. It rocks its weight back into the hole, where it shuffles crosswise, corking the burrow with its body. Wedged against all comers. Only then does it make eye contact.

The narrative transformation of the bolson tortoise from hospice species to time traveller begins, unexpectedly, with lions in Oklahoma.

We climb into Truett’s pickup and rattle from Armendaris Ranch to the freeway, Truett knuckling the wheel against the wind-suck through the gulches, heading southwest to another Turner property. Ladder Ranch is half the size of Armendaris, but still a lot larger than you’d want to walk across under any kind of sun. They keep the baby tortoises there, hatchlings already the size of baseballs, but I am more interested in a century-old stone and mortar ranch building overlooking the improbable green swale of Las Animas Creek. “It was a good place for a discussion,” says Truett, “insulated from reality.”

In September 2004, he joined thirteen other leading conservation thinkers at the Ladder Ranch lodge for a two-day brainstorm on the restoration of North America’s “evolutionary and ecological potential.” In an easy chair beneath the trophy head of a mule deer sat the guru of the gathering, Paul Martin, the desert zoologist whose overkill hypothesis first championed the idea that the spread of humankind is largely to blame for the worldwide megafaunal extinctions of the past 50,000 years. Seated along a Last Supper–style table were a dozen other luminaries — what Josh Donlan, the Cornell University graduate student who helped organize the meeting, called “National Academy, silverback, rock star scientists,” among them Michael Soulé, considered by many to be the father of conservation biology; and Dave Foreman, a founder of the direct-action Earth First! environmentalist network. Up for discussion: the possibility that conservation is on the wrong path as it fights to preserve an archipelago of “pristine” wilderness areas from the juggernaut of humanity.

To understand the hollow promise of these parks and protected areas, it is necessary to revisit the late Pleistocene. The landscape of North America at that time, say 15,000 years ago, was in many ways familiar. The last ice age glaciers were still receding toward the Arctic, but they were doing so through seasons much like ours today. There were mountains where we have mountains, plains where we have plains. Streaming throughout was a bestiary of giants that strains the imagination.
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5 comment(s)

Jason AddyFebruary 16, 2009 10:16 EST

Reading this article, like reading Sea of Slaughter, makes me cross my fingers and hope that we kill ourselves off completely and as quickly as possible and so start the process again: the rise of a new powerful killer that will most assuredly drive the future Earth to the brink. Its not just us humans that have produced "data" showing that we will populate and consume until there are no resources left but almost every species will do this if left unchecked by a rich web of life, one that includes a feedback for overconsumption. Our only feedback looks like the depletion of the Planets full catalogue of life.

J.B. MacKinnon has written a superb story that gives some hope for the Planets future but perhaps not ours.

Tom F.February 16, 2009 13:08 EST

This line summarized our dilemma for me: “It is crucial for the restoration of this ecosystem that [the] public are able to visualize previous states of their local ecosystems.” Very few of us, as mobile as we are, live out our lives observing and interacting with the same ecosystem — we aren't locals anywhere anymore. So we all suffer from Dr. Pauly's shifting baselines: now our scope is narrowed to the distance of keyboard and monitor, our memories strain back to last week's episode, and our ire is raised only when Facebook changes its layout.

????July 14, 2009 02:25 EST

"Then, about 10,000 years ago, late in the Pleistocene epoch, they disappeared..."

Excuse me, but where did you get these "facts"?..

????July 21, 2009 01:38 EST

Actually Norman Myers is not that good....really....read his latest works.

AnonymousDecember 27, 2011 10:37 EST

Thank-you.
I live at the northern boundary of the Chihuahan Dest ecosystem in the Tularosa Basin. I don\'t know if your turtles migrate this far, a few have shown up in my back yard to hibernate aand the ones around here do migrate, moving some thirty miles per day, by one account. along with rattlesnakes and turantiallas. Their shells and eyes are, yes, cosmic.
The playa must have filled for a while in the monsoon seasons of 2006 and 2008. Hope that revitalized them. But desert climate is demanding of the \"jewel.\"

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