The survival of some of the world’s most endangered freshwater turtles — mostly from Southeast Asia — could hinge on what happens on a 50-acre plot of land in an isolated corner of Berkeley County.
The Turtle Survival Alliance, an internationally recognized advocacy and rescue group, is finalizing a deal to create a turtle sanctuary here to help more than two-dozen species on the brink of extinction.
When completed, hundreds of turtles, some essentially gone or close to disappearing from the wild, will be protected at the site.
“We selected species that don’t have a chance,” Rick Hudson, president of the TSA, told The Post and Courier.
The Berkeley County site, in Cross, was chosen in part because the climate is considered “moderate coastal lowland,” comparable to a number of locations where the group’s target species are found.
Supporters envision it becoming a hub for tortoise and turtle research.
Asian turtles are among the most threatened in the world, partly because of ancient dining and medicinal customs, and partly because of a proliferation of wealth that has boosted demand.
Worldwide, the appetite for turtle meat has become so great that South Carolina lawmakers made it a crime in 2009 to transport large numbers of several species out of state unregulated.
The fear was that trappers from elsewhere, including Louisiana, were entering South Carolina, cleaning out rural ponds and shipping their catches overseas.
Many of the turtles the TSA wants to protect have become so rare that they have been known to be snatched up by poachers on sight and sent to breeders, or sold as valuable private pets.
“There’s just no chance of preserving those in the wild,” Hudson said.
“The culture of Asia is such that if a turtle is found alive, it’s taken.”
No native South Carolina species will be kept at the sanctuary where noted Lowcountry reptile veterinarian and conservationist Sam Seashole, aka “the Croc Doc,” had operated a clinic.
Seashole, who is retired and said to be media-shy on this matter, did not respond to an interview request. The site includes land, holding pools, clinic rooms, offices and support buildings.
Advocates say the new Turtle Survival Center has the potential to be a significant contributor in the world of global conservation. Of the world’s top 25 most-endangered turtles, the center will feature nine of them. Of the 27 species in total that will be kept there, 20 are ranked critically endangered.
Among the variety of turtles set to take up residence at the center are the Vietnam pond turtle, golden-headed box turtle, southern Vietnamese box turtle and the Indochinese serrated turtle — all exotically named species but increasingly dwindling in habitat and populations.
One mission of the center includes the growth of “assurance colonies” that will keep rare species from completely dying out. The hope is that offspring born at the center might one day repopulate ancestral habitats, Hudson said.
Many of the turtles destined for the center are already owned by the group and are being held with various owners and facilities in the U.S. Others will be acquired from private breeders and zoos as opportunity allows.
S.C. Department of Natural Resources turtle expert Steve Bennett said there is little danger of the turtles brought to the center of escaping or damaging the state’s native ecology. The populations will be confined, cared for and counted, and like all turtles, are slow-moving.
Bennett characterized most foreign-based turtle species as differing greatly from the environmental-risk category that includes the ravenous and speedy Asian carp, which escaped from ponds in the Midwest in the few last decades and are now wreaking havoc on water systems there, spurred on by their ravenous appetites and breeding.
At the Cross operation, “the risk is minimal compared to the overall global benefits,” he said.
The arrangement to bring the facility to Berkeley County was not coordinated through any of the state’s commerce agencies, said Hudson, who is also conservation biologist at the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas.
While only a handful of jobs will be created or needed at first, Hudson said he envisions potential partnerships taking shape with the College of Charleston, Clemson University and the University of South Carolina as the site’s research begins to grow.
Education and outreach will be a large part of the mission, he added.
The TSA operates several turtle-assistance facilities worldwide, including in Burma, India and soon, Madagascar. The Cross site will be the first where non-native turtles will be taken and housed in one operation.
“No group of vertebrates is under greater threat or faces a higher risk of extinction than freshwater turtles and tortoises,” Hudson said, adding that the group is dedicated to “zero turtle extinctions.”