Dr. Michael W. Klemens, Director of Conservation and the Turtle Recovery Program at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is a very busy person. The very future of the chelonians on our planet is his responsibility. He made time in his schedule to speak with me on the phone.
Diane Levine (DL): How did you become interested in turtles and tortoises?
Michael Klemens (MK): That's an easy question! I found a box turtle when I went to camp (in western Pennsylvania) when I was eight years old.
DL: Do you still keep turtles?
MK: I have one or two turtles which have found their way to me which I use in lectures. But I don't have many pet turtles now. I have a desert tortoise, which was given to me. It was one of those that was going to be euthanized because it had URDS. I nursed it back to health. Someone gave me a pancake tortoise which I find very useful when lecturing about pancake tortoises and their problems.
In the past, I kept and bred various species of tortoises and turtles, but these days I devote my energies to trying to save them in the wild. I had leopard tortoises and bred them in captivity. And I had sulcata. They were among the first sulcata to come into the country. They went down to San Antonio to form the nucleus of San Antonio's successful breeding program.
So, I have kept quite a few different turtles. I think that was important in developing my interests in turtles and tortoises to this point.
DL: Do you find a conflict between keeping them as pets and trying to conserve them in the wild?
MK: I don't find a conflict in theory. I think that there are many species of turtles that are abundant enough that one can keep them. I think that by keeping turtles one can hopefully engender the interest in turtles that can be transferred to turtles in the wild and conservation activities. But, I do think that there are excesses on the part of some turtle keepers. I think there are many species that are taken from the wild in numbers that are not sustainable. A lot of species that are kept shouldn't be kept. A lot of people try to justify keeping them under the rubric of captive breeding and doing something for wild turtles, when in fact almost all captive bred turtles never go back to the wild and in most cases aren't fit to go back to the wild.
So I'm not against keeping turtles. I think it's a very valuable and a very productive exercise because it can make people concerned about turtles in the wild. I just think it needs to be done more responsibly than it's being done by many people.
DL: How does your work relate to the exhibits of the Museum?
MK:People don't realize that the museum has about 200 scientists. It's a major research institution. We, of course, are very much involved in the exhibitions. When they involve turtles, I would be called in. But we have scientists that are doing field work and research around the world. I've always been a turtle specialist and now I've moved very much into taking that science and applying it to conservation. Very recently the museum asked me to expand this not just to turtles but to all other organisms that we deal with.
DL: What are your duties at the American Museum of Natural History? How are they turtle related?
MK: I am in charge of developing their conservation program which is linking the scientific research which goes on here at the Museum to conservation activities. We are trying to take the science that we do and see how it can be integrated into conservation.
One of my major areas is working on the Turtle Recovery Program. It is one of the early projects I started here in conjunction with the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) World Conservation Union's global action plan for freshwater turtles and tortoises. I am taking that Action Plan and translating it into conservation reality.