The fate of free-ranging tortoises in Tuscany
Taken in April 2003
Only a very few halfway intact tortoise populations still persist in Tuscany. Most specimens that are found more or less by accident are in fact single survivors that have not yet been killed in the ongoing process of destruction of their natural habitats. In their cases it is only a question of time when they will also be beaten to death by humans, squashed under a car's tyre, mangled by a plough, burned to death in a bushfire, or pocketed and taken home by an ignorant tourist. Even if they somehow manage to evade all these dangers, they still face death medium-term from poisoning by artificial fertilizers and pesticides either directly or indirectly via their food. In areas with intense agriculture, the original feeder plants with their low nutritional value have become scant. The tortoises therefore have to consume what the fields offer instead, even though these cultivar plants are entirely unsuited as food for tortoises.
I keep on finding postings on the Internet stating that tortoises would eat a tomato, cucumber, melon or even a peach every now and then in the wild as well. But the fact of the matter is that I have yet to see a tomato, cucumber or melon plant or even a peach tree in an original tortoise habitat. Just think about it.
For many, many years I have been visiting parts of Tuscany, sometimes several times within one year, mainly in order to pursue my field studies of three still relatively intact tortoise populations.
One of these persists in a remote, small, open hard-leafed forest with sun-drenched clearings. The other two live in remote valleys that are overgrown with maquis and have so far not been converted into agricultural land. So far, that is ...
It was thus that in October of 2004 I went to revisit these tortoise populations in their valleys. But what a shock awaited me when I found that one of these habitats had ceased to exist!
It had been fire-cleared and converted into crop fields. The existing vegetation had been destroyed and with it the entire tortoise population of at least 3000 heads.
I want to share with you a few photographs of this habitat taken before and after the man-made catastrophe. The tortoise population destroyed in this habitat was one of the last few remaining intact local populations in Tuscany and is now irretrievably lost. As a result of the dry wood that typically accumulates in maquis and the dense thicket of shrubs and trees the heat of the fire was so intense that it even killed tortoises that had been buried in the ground. In spite of my concentrated search I could not find a single indicator of a surviving tortoise. The great majority of tortoises were burned to ashes, and a few bones were all that was left of a few others. Only in areas where low brush and grass had grown, dead tortoises with relatively undamaged shells were to be found.
This habitat used to lie in southern Tuscany in an idyllic, lonely valley where nature had until then resisted the agricultural moloch. The region is only sparsely populated with people. Villages are widely spaced, with individual podere (individual farms that are usually run by a single family) in between.
The valley of about 150 hectares is encircled by hills typical of the Tuscan landscape, and its character must certainly have remained unchanged for hundreds of years. The surrounding hills are covered with forest or are used intensely for agriculture. The fields are ploughed to a depth of some 80 cm at least twice every year with gigantic ploughshares that are pulled by caterpillar tractors.
The vegetation of this remote valley used to consist of more or less high, partly very dense maquis and extensive patches with low grass, grass tufts, hay-making herbs, and bushes.
An idyllic original paradise for tortoises for centuries: before it was fire-cleared
The fire-cleared valley
View to the left
Straight ahead: the first fields have already been established...
...and a view to the right
The other pictures do not need to be captioned