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Gopher tortoise needs our help
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We hear a lot of news about the loss of tropical rain forests due to deforestation, and the loss of polar bear habitat due to global warming, and relatively little about issues closer to home. Why is it that we know more about the loss of rainforests and ice sheets than the loss of sandhills which are right under our very noses?

The Gopher tortoise, Gopherus polyphemus, has been a successful part of the Southeast’s environment for a long time.

Gopher tortoises have been crawling around for millions of years, but biologists who study these ancient reptiles are concerned they may disappear from many areas unless more is done to protect them and preserve the habitat they need.

The Gopher tortoise lives as long as 40-60 years under natural conditions and up to 100 years in captivity, making this animal a very successful, rugged and long-lasting species.

Yet, in the rush to develop the sandy uplands of our region, these creatures are losing out.

The traits and behaviors that have made them so successful for so long, are the same traits that hinder them in our increased pace to alter the land.

Yes, we need houses and businesses, but let’s not lose sight of the big picture in our determination to grow.

Because tortoise dig a burrow, they are susceptible to being buried. What’s the loss of a Gopher tortoise or two? In order to answer this question, we need to think of cumulative impacts.

In Florida, thousands of tortoises have knowingly been buried making them very rare.

The state of Georgia, through the Department of Natural Resources, recognizes that the Gopher tortoise in Georgia is becoming threatened and lists them as a protected species.

Are we following in Florida’s foot steps? I have been involved in some Gopher tortoise relocation projects in Bryan County. So far, I’ve rescued two tortoises and six eggs.

The adults have been relocated to Fort Stewart and the eggs are incubating on St. Catherine’s Island. Hundreds of Gopher tortoise in Bryan County stand to be buried alive if we don’t do something about protecting these fascinating animals.

Here’s what we can do:

1) We can set aside some areas and protect their habitat through the Governor’s Land Conservation Initiative.

2) If Gopher tortoise are found on your land, the first action should be to let them be. But if it seems that they will be impacted by development, do what it takes to relocate them. Don’t just bury them. Call the Georgia DNR and tell them you need help. This should be a last case scenario.

3) Educate others on this unique animal. A good website to learn more about Gopher tortoise is through the Gopher Tortoise Council:

Remember that life in its many forms needs to be protected. We are stewards of this earth and need to respect all the plants and animals that inhabit this beautiful planet with us.

Mary Elfner is the Georgia Important Bird Areas (IBA) coordinator for the Audubon Society (

She also runs Mary A. Elfner Environmental Consulting Company (, and has an M.S. degree in wildlife biology and environmental policy from the University of Georgia Forestry School.

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