20 April 2013

Living in the past (3): turtle diary*

*Russell Hoban, Turtle diary. 1975, London: Cape. 0224010859.
I am probably not unusual in this: that I generally try to do the right thing but all too often turn out, in retrospect, to have gotten it wrong.
My continued scanning of old negatives, however, reminds me that there's one thing with which I can, in a modest way, be unequivocally satisfied: that I was once a small, insignificant and peripheral cog in an obscure corner of the large effort to constrain a rapacious international trade in exotic animals.
At that time, in the mid nineteen seventies, millions of wild tortoises were extracted (anodyne word) annually from wild habitats in Africa, Mediterranean Europe, Turkey and the southern USSR, then shipped to pet shops predominantly in northern Europe – particularly Germany and the UK.
The economics of the trade encouraged barbaric collection and shipping methods which resulted in only five percent of those millions actually arriving for sale. The remainder either died en route or arrived so damaged (broken shells, gangrenous or severed legs…) that, unsaleable, they were simply dumped.
Nor was arrival alive in the pet shop an end of it. Because customers preferred smaller, cuter tortoises, the trade emphasised those. In the wild in, for example, Morocco, a small young tortoise would not hibernate for a whole long winter as it had to do in northern Europe. It would hibernate during a cold spell, then emerge to feed during warmer intervals, replenishing nutritional stocks before returning to a another period of sleep. In a northern European home straw box, this was not an option; the small, immature tortoises favoured by pet buyers, unable to store sufficient reserves for the required time span, all too often starved to death during the long winter.
My part in the slow, painstaking efforts to change all of this was nothing spectacular, you understand; nothing that any other small cog couldn't have done, and did do, in many other places. Taking photographs to document, evidence, and publicise abuses or breaches of such laws as could at the time be brought to bear. But, as it went, I was the small cog that happened to be turned in my particular corner of the world – and I'm content with that.


Ray Girvan said...

We had a couple of tortoises when I was maybe 7 to my early 20s. I never knew or considered where they came from. My parents killed them both through unintentional (I hope) neglect - they moved to Scotland, and brainlessly put them in an unheated shed to hibernate, a shed that went sub-zero, so the poor guys froze and died.

Felix said...

I think that's a common story, Ray.

I had never thought where tortoises came from, either, until I became involved in this.

And I think most tortoises end their days through the same unconsidered but unintended ignorance. Your parents did what they'd always done, through the same entirely good intentions, not thinking through the changed circumstances any more than you or I thought about the original source.

Ray Girvan said...

The trouble was, I always suspected they half-hoped the tortoises wouldn't wake up each year. They were very garden-proud, and tortoises didn't fit that scheme.

Kyle said...

"My part in the slow, painstaking efforts to change all of this was nothing spectacular..."

I absolutely disagree with this statement. Your efforts are commendable and I, for one, thank you for making them. If we would all be such 'small cogs' our accomplishments would be extraordinary. I am proud to say I know you.