Tortoises can sometimes be under-rated, but like in Aesop’s fable, they are often quite tenacious and committed to their goals. Gerald Kuchling is just such a species, and after numerous tortoise and freshwater turtle conservation successes, he was recently recognized for his enormous contributions.
The 4th annual Behler Award was presented to Gerald Kuchling at the 7th Annual Symposium on Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles held a few months ago in St. Louis, Missouri. Dr Anders Rhodin, Chair of the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, and Rick Hudson, President of Turtle Survival Alliance, presented the award, which includes a US $3,000 honorarium. The co-sponsors of this year’s award were Chelonian Research Foundation, Conservation International, Chelonian Research Institute, Behler Chelonian Center, World Chelonian Trust, Wildlife Conservation Society, Deborah Behler, and Brett and Nancy Stearns.
At the ceremony, Kuchling was recognized for his life-long commitment to turtle research and conservation, and for his inspirational work in the field. He is known to have almost single-handedly brought at least one turtle species back from the brink of extinction—the western swamp turtle, Pseudemydura umbrina, of Australia.
Kuchling has been significantly and instrumentally involved with the conservation and recovery of four of the world’s 25 most endangered turtles (Pseudemydura umbrina in Australia, Erymnochelys madagascariensis in Madagascar, Batagur trivittata in Myanmar, and Rafetus swinhoei in China), and positively associated with conservation efforts for a further eight of them (Batagur affinis, Batagur borneoensis, Chelodina mccordi, Chitra chitra, Elusor macrurus, Astrochelys yniphora, Psammobates geometricus, and Pyxis planicauda).
One turtle is named after him — a snake-necked turtle from the Kimberley region of Western Australia. A hallmark of Kuchling's approach to turtle conservation has been his focus on reproductive biological research and applied methodologies. His book, “The Reproductive Biology of the Chelonia,” was published in 1999.
Born in Austria in 1952, Kuchling studied zoology and physiology at the University of Vienna, where he worked as a research assistant in the herpetological collection of the Natural History Museum Vienna from 1972 to 1975, and received his doctorate degree from the University of Vienna in 1979, with a thesis on the control of reproduction in the tortoise Testudo hermanni. After a post-doctorate at the University of Göttingen, he started tortoise and turtle surveys and conservation projects in Madagascar in 1984.
In the 1990s, he developed a conservation strategy for Erymnochelys madagascariensis with the support of Conservation International and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Today, a Malagasy DWCT team continues this conservation and recovery programme.
In 1987, Kuchling and his wife, Guundie, moved to Western Australia to bring the Critically Endangered Western Swamp Turtle, Pseudemydura umbrina, back from the brink of extinction. In the mid-1980s, this species had a world population of less than 50 individuals and did not breed in captivity. With the support of WWF and the Australian and Western Australian Governments, he set up a successful breeding operation at Perth Zoo and started to reintroduce captive bred turtles back into the wild in 1994. While the species still qualifies as Critically Endangered, its numbers in the wild have increased to over 200 individuals.
As Principal Investigator of the Western Swamp Turtle Recovery Team, he guided the recovery planning and implementation, and continues this recovery work today as the Senior Research Scientist of the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation and as an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the School of Animal Biology of The University of Western Australia.
In 2002, the collaboration of Kuchling’s business Chelonia Enterprises with the Myanmar Forestry Department lead to the rediscovery of Batagur trivittata, a large river turtle that had not been recorded alive since 1935. He immediately established a captive colony at Mandalay Zoo and developed a conservation strategy for the species. In 2004, his surveys, conducted in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society, detected two remnant populations in upper Myanmar, one of which is now monitored and protected by a WCS team with the help of local people. The captive breeding and head-start programme for this species continues today at the Mandalay Zoo under the guidance of the Turtle Survival Alliance.
Over the last few years, Kuchling, working for the Turtle Survival Alliance, assessed and improved breeding projects for Critically Endangered Asian turtles, including Chitra chitra in Thailand and Batagur affinis in Malaysia. Since 2007, Kuchling has also led the Rafetus swinhoei captive breeding project between the world’s only known female, which he discovered in Changsha Zoo in China, and the only surviving old male in Suzhou Zoo, China. These two turtles were brought together and eggs were laid in 2008 and 2009, but successful hatchlings have not yet been produced by the old couple.
The IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group and Turtle Survival Alliance founded the Behler Turtle Conservation Award in 2006, in memory of John L. Behler, the previous Chair of the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group and Curator of Herpetology at the Bronx Zoo, Wildlife Conservation Society. Previous Behler Award honorees have been Ed Moll, Whit Gibbons, and Peter Pritchard. In addition to honoring the life-time achievements of senior turtle and tortoise conservationists, this annual award also recognizes conservation efforts by younger individuals who have made major contributions to the field of tortoise and freshwater conservation.