Village Banya, Municipality Nessebar, Bulgaria
July 14, 2010
There are two tortoise species in Bulgaria that have been critically reduced and are currently listed in the IUCN red list. This are the Testudo graeca, rated as vulnerable, and the Testudo hermanni rated as nearly threatened (IUCN - 2004).
Some of the factors that have contributed to the deterioration of the tortoise habitat in Bulgaria are the expansion of resorts and tourist pressure -especially along the Black Sea Coast-; human consumption; pet trade; the introduction of intensive agriculture that cause substantial habitat alteration; the rising number of free-ranging pigs, jackals and wild boars; the lack of effective conservation measures and actions; and the long recruitment period within tortoise populations. The sum of all of these factors has resulted in a significant reduction in the population of tortoises, and in some areas has led to their disappearance.
Unfortunately, even though both species of land tortoises are protected by the Bulgarian legislation, until now official authorities haven’t provided enough conditions for coordinated and targeted actions that ensure their preservation and stabilization, including scientific research.
For this reason, in April 2007, Ivo Ivanchev created “Gea Chelonia Foundation”, the first non-profit organization in Bulgaria dedicated to the conservation and research of turtles and tortoises. Gea Chelonia’s Centre for reproduction and rehabilitation of tortoises in Banya village is the only one of its kind and was officially approved by the Ministry of Environment and Waters of Bulgaria at the end of 2007. In June 2008, the foundation initiated a project aimed at protecting and preserving tortoises (Testudo graeca ibera and Testudo hermanni boettgeri) and their habitats in the Eastern Eminska Mountains, through direct conservation measures, sustainable ecotourism and development, and awareness activities.
The project provides a unique combination of the first Tortoise Centre for reproduction and rehabilitation of tortoises, and a Visitors Centre that will open to tourists and schoolchildren on September 10, 2010.
In May 2009, the foundation received a grant of the Small Grants Programme in Bulgaria to apply an environmental-friendly approach to ecotourism and provide environmental education, thus contributing to conservation of species of national and worldwide significance.
Major activities of the project are: field inventories for designation of threatened but still well preserved habitats in the region; creating a GIS data base; establishing partnership with local authorities, local community, NGOs, schools and the media; conservation and educational activities; construction and opening of a Visitor Centre and eco-trail; and a promotional and media campaign.
The creation of the Visitors Center is as a response to the rising need of a wide-range of conservation measures, the need for a better understanding of biodiversity conservation; importance of involving the local community; and increasing the income of local households. The Tortoise Centre’s land is partially divided into enclosures for the separation of species, males from females, as well as for other occasions when separation is necessary. Enclosures are provided with natural and artificial hiding places, and are observed daily. There is adequate living space in which natural food items like those in the wild are available to the tortoises. Fresh water is made available on a daily basis, and special care, when necessary, is provided. In such artificial conditions, tortoises reproduce and overwinter successfully, with minimal human intervention.
In Bulgaria and surely elsewhere, great numbers of tortoises are often released at an inappropriate time of year and/or in inappropriate habitats following their confiscation or voluntary donation to authorities. Often they are in poor physical condition, and their release will lead to certain death. Unfortunately, officials in Bulgaria responsible for such activities lack adequately trained staff. One of the goals of the Centre is to diminish this problem by providing the physical evaluation of each rescued tortoise, and subsequent treatment when necessary prior to release.
Incorrect husbandry practices often result in injuries, poor health, excessive parasite load, etc. Often such debilitated or damaged tortoises can be rehabilitated and included in the captive breeding program, if there is reason not to release them. A suitable indoor facility is used for controlled hibernation of young and unfit specimens, which require that their condition be regularly checked. During the active season the same facility is used for keeping young and sick tortoises overnight or during unfavorable weather, or for medical treatment and other such occasions as needed. Housing conditions of hatchlings and juveniles up to the age of three years are close to natural ones, but with added safety measures-- small enclosures covered with safety nets to prevent predation.
All tortoises released are first marked according to established field techniques, and important data on each specimen is stored in the Centre’s data base. Captive-bred tortoises are released into suitable areas after having attained three years of age, when they are relatively safe from predation, and when sex determination is usually possible. If the source or the region where the specimen had been taken from the wild remains unknown, it is released in a carefully selected area enjoying protected status, and where tortoise populations need restoration and stabilization.
Among other activities of the Centre will be different lectures for the public, publishing educational materials and working with children and youth. The official opening of the Tortoise Center will be on 10 September 2010, hopefully during the most intensive hatching period, when the appearance of the amazing small tortoises can be observed.
The area where the project activities are taking place is the easternmost part of the Balkan Mountain Range – Eminska Mountain, comprising a territory of approximately 80 sq. km. The borders to the south and to the east are the Black sea, to the west the main highway connecting Varna and Burgas and to the north – the Ghin River. The area lies within the Black sea coastal climatic zone with an average annual temperature of 12° and an average annual precipitation of 550-600 mm. The vegetation consists of mixed broadleaved forests featuring elm, ash, oak, hornbeam, etc. The region remains relevantly undisturbed by resort construction and is a natural home of both tortoise species, there is no industry and human population density is low, which makes it very favourable from ecological point of view.