Conservation and Research
March 9, 2020

Tortoise DNA Project in KwaZulu-Natal

Over the past couple of months, Wildlife ACT staff in Zululand have turned part of their attention to something a little different, tortoises. Some members of staff have been permitted to collect genetic samples from tortoises that they come across while out in the field.

This work is part of a project driven by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (Ezemvelo) in partnership FreeMe Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre KZN. The objective of the project is to work with the relevant stakeholders in establishing whether genetics of wild tortoises within KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) show any genetic similarities to tortoises undergoing rehabilitation at permitted rehabilitation centres, so that rehabilitated individuals can be incorporated into a responsible, thoroughly-researched release process back into the wild.

Tortoise DNA Project KZN

Tortoise DNA Project Collaboration

Wildlife ACT staff have been especially trained to take a small sample from the tortoise using collection methods that are gentle and ethical. The samples are then sent to Dr. Adrian Armstrong of Ezemvelo for them to be analyzed in a genetics laboratory.  The genetic information from the samples collected will be used to build up a database of genetic information on three species of tortoises which occur in KZN namely; Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis), Eastern Hinge-back Tortoise (Kinixys zombensis) and the KwaZulu-Natal Hinge-back Tortoise (Kinixys natalensis).

Local Rehabilitation Centres, such as FreeMe, continuously rescue tortoises that have fallen victim to the pet trade and illegal wildlife trafficking. Careful consideration needs to be taken before Ezemvelo and FreeMe can proceed with releasing rehabilitated individuals. A better understanding of where the tortoises originated from, as well as how similar they are to the wild populations around KZN, needs to be obtained.

Tortoise DNA Project KZN

To minimise the threat of exposing existing wild populations to genetic out-crossing, the aim of the Tortoise DNA Project will be to ensure that the rescued and rehabilitated tortoises are genetically similar to the wild tortoise populations in the habitats where they may be released. The database that is developed through this initiative will help to gain a better understanding of the origins of rescued tortoises and where the most suitable areas would be for them to be released.

The tortoises will undergo a “soft release” process once cleared for reintroduction, allowing them to become more familiar with the wild food in the area. The soft release process will involve getting tortoises familiar with “wild food” and acclimatised to their new environments before releasing them into the wild.

By steering this Tortoise DNA Project, Ezemvelo and its collaborators aim to pursue a safe and responsible method of returning tortoises back into the wild.

Good luck tortoises!

Article by Wildlife ACT Monitor Fi Evans