About Desert Tortoises


Native to the southwestern United States and Mexico, the Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii and Gopherus morafkai) has lived on the planet for over 220 million years.


They were witness to the rise and fall of dinosaurs, yet now are in free fall to extinction. Over half of the tortoise species (62%) are predicted to become extinct within a few years. Preventing their extinction is more challenging compared to other threatened wildlife species, for several reasons. [1] [2]


 Tortoise and Turtle Conservation Issues


Tortoises communities have decline dramatically – over 90%- during the past three decades as a result if human activities. Direct causes include collection, military activities, off-road and on road vehicle death, and trampling. Indirect cause of death and injury include habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation by urbanization, military development, and ranching practices.


Issue 1: Tortoise populations decimated by many causes.

Development, habitat destruction, habitat degradation, roads, boats, fishing, hunting, pollution, and poison kill thousands annually. For example, key tortoise habitat has been appropriated by the U.S. military causing huge habitat loss, endangerment, and impediment to movement in an already highly restricted range. [3] Turtles and tortoises simply have no place to live or nest.

Issue 2: Turtles are victims of poaching around the world.

Turtle eggs, skins, shells, and meat are highly valued. There is conflict between conservation goals and those of many local, indigenous people living in turtle habitat who traditionally killed turtles for food and products and now are pressed economically. Wildlife trafficking is the “third most profitable illicit trade in the world. [4] As a result, turtle protection is highly charged and even dangerous. For example, last May, 2013, while patrolling a Costa Rican sea turtle nesting beach to prevent poachers of leatherback turtles, 26-year-old volunteer, Jairo Mora Sandoval, was bound, beaten, and killed a by masked gunmen. [5]

Issue 3: Tortoise advocates few, legal protections lacking.

There are several interrelated factors responsible for underserving turtles. First, similar to certain dog breeds (e.g., pit bulls), reptiles suffer from human prejudice and misconception. They are considered “less than” and primitive compared to mammals, lacking qualities and capacities we admire as a species: emotions, cognition, and personality. [6] However, recent science reveals that mammal, bird, and reptile brains and minds are functionally one and the same. Tortoises and turtles possess the ability to think, feel, dream, enjoy relationships, and experience consciousness like we do. [7]. Second, turtles are neither seen nor heard. They are not endowed with outer expressions and form that invite the empathy and concern humans naturally feel with mammals. They do not garner the attention and support given to large, visible, charismatic (e.g., elephants) and familiar (e.g., dogs, cats) animals. [8]. Third, animals everywhere are in need with too few people to help them. Consequently, when a choice must be made, resources are directed in favor of charismatic, large-bodied, and/or familiar species. [9] Turtles and tortoises are overlooked.

Issue 4: Captive trade causes great suffering and deaths.

Captive reptile deaths far exceed those of other animal groups. Because reptiles can be handily kept in small terraria and cages, they are a popular “pet.” Their relatively small sizes make for ready transport and they are considered “low maintenance” to care for. However, such treatment and conditions fail to meet even minimal needs. Mortality is extremely high and suffering immense. This promotes rapid turnover and increases the “metabolism” of the market for reptiles. Trade in these individuals is huge and the advent of internet marketing fuels an already burgeoning illegal and legal captive market. For example, in 2009, reptile trade in the U.S. alone stood at $1.4 billion (US).

Issue 5: There are insufficient sanctuaries.

As endangered species, government regulations prohibit the re-homing of desert tortoises to the public. Diseased, impairment from abuse, malnutrition, and advanced age, abandoned or relinquished “pet” Desert Tortoises cannot be reintroduced to the wild. This stems not only from concerns about their welfare, but that they will introduce disease into an already-fragile wild population. Most re-homed turtles are abandoned again and few people are inclined to care for an impaired animal. Existing rescue centers are rare and filled to the brim with native and non-native species.


Tortoise Facts



Desert Tortoises may reach eighty years of age and weigh up to 15 pounds. Their average length is 15 inches (38 cm). Their clawed, front feet are powerful and used for digging. Their rear legs are stout and elephant-like. Front hands are five-clawed while back feet are four clawed. Their inner body is protected by a high-domed, ringed shell which accumulates annual growth rings. Like trees, these rings can be used to estimate age.


Their natural diet includes natives blue grama grass, evening primrose, morning glory, cassia and buckwheat. In captivity, they enjoy kale, parsley, beet greens, spinach, collard greens, dandelions, grape leaves, rose petals, squash leaves, and watercress. Poor diet and abuse lead to shell, beak, and limb deformities or loss. Mortality in captivity is very high.

Denning and Hibernation

Tortoises generally have two kinds of dens. Summer burrows are dug 3-4 feet (0.9 to 1.2 m) below the soil surface. Winter burrows, where they hibernate from November to April, are often dug into a bank or wash. (Reptile hibernation is referred to as brumation). Winter burrows are often shared, with one den found holding 17 tortoises. Typically, the burrows are horizontal and relatively deep, ranging from 8-30 feet (2.4 to 9.1 m). They also use burrows to access cool earth and shade when desert temperatures soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Females dig shallow nests and lay eggs in late spring to early summer. The clutch of eggs, usually one to 14 in number, hatch three months later.

Tortoise vs. Mammals

The Declaration of Non-Human Consciousness drafted by eminent neuroscientists and others that include physicist Stephen Hawking states that all vertebrates share with humans common capacities to think, feel, and experience consciousness. This includes Tortoises. Hence, despite outer appearances and that the fact that they are ectotherms (i.e., regulate internal body temperature via behavioral change), “the reptile and bird brains are both analogous to the mammalian brain having comparable capacities and functions.” (Duke University professor of medicine and neuroscience, Erich Jarvis)



Turtle Conservation Coalition [Rhodin, A.G.J., Walde, A.D., Horne, B.D., van Dijk, P.P., Blanck, T., and Hudson, R. (Eds.)]. 2011. Turtles in Trouble: The World’s 25+ Most Endangered Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles—2011. Lunenburg, MA: IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, Turtle Conservation Fund, Turtle Survival Alliance, Turtle Conservancy, Chelonian Research Foundation, Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society, and San Diego Zoo Global, 54 pp.


Swingland, I and M. Clemens. 1989. The Conservation Biology of Tortoises. Occasional Papers of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC), No. 5, Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group and The Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology.


Woody, T. 2010. For the Desert Tortoise, a Threat and an Opportunity. New York Times, November, 2010.


Doo, S. 2013. The evolving threat of wildlife trafficking. International; Affairs Review.


Why Jairo died. 2013. Tico Times.


Ceríaco, L.M.P.2012. Human attitudes towards herpetofauna: The influence of folklore and negative values on the conservation of amphibians and reptiles. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 8:8


Jarvis, E. 2012. Personal communication.  “The bird brain is a reptile brain or the reptile is a bird brain and they are both analogous to the mammalian brain having comparable capacities and functions.” (Dr. Erich Jarvis is on the faculty of the medical school and neuroscience department, Duke University.)