It is easy to write a book about wildlife, since people can't seem to get enough on this topic. It is difficult to write a good book, where good science meets engaging literature. It is extraordinary when I come across a book that is destined to become a classic. The Case of the Green Turtle: An Uncensored History of a Conservation Icon, by Professor Alison Rieser, will certainly become a classic to sea turtle enthusiasts, sea turtle biologists and managers, and others interested in a detailed, scholarly overview of the transition of a species of sea turtle, the "edible turtle" (Chelonia mydas), from a species heavily exploited for its flesh and eggs to a species deserving of worldwide protection.
In large part, this book chronicles the evolution of famed sea turtle conservationist Archie Carr (So Excellent a Fishe: A Natural History of Sea Turtles, The Windward Road: Adventures of a Naturalist on Remote Caribbean Shores) and others from their original scientific interest in an interesting species, to managers concerned with preventing overexploitation, to conservation ecologists concerned with the preservation of a species and its distinct populations, cultural traditions, and the ecosystems in which green sea turtles reside and interact. From "edible turtle" to "conservation icon"... this puts sea turtles into rare company indeed: giant pandas, African elephants, black and white rhinos, cetaceans, great apes, and a few more species. People plan vacations around observing these charismatic animals. They "adopt" them. And they, in general, react very strongly to real or perceived injustices (captivity, exploitation, invasive research) against these species. As Rieser writes, the green turtle transitions from food to friend.
Alison Rieser tells, in exquisite and engaging detail, the play-by-play development of US and international policies regarding the exploitation (overexploitation) of green turtles. Couched within this tale is the development of the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and the shift of public attitudes from desiring green turtle soup to desiring simply the existence of these magnificent sea turtles. Rieser weaves this story around the attempt to make green turtle farming a reality. And, of course, the debate here is whether making rare, threatened, and endangered species more available through farming (like domestic animals) increases or decreases the exploitation pressure on native populations.
There were a number of "ah-ha" moments that Rieser pinpoints, such as the understanding that nesting females return multiple times to a nesting beach during a season but don't return every year, the first use of the term "frenzy" to describe the march of hatchlings away from the coastal zone, and the chance discovery of Monel livestock tags for use with sea turtles (the use of these tags could be considered the most influential tool in the history of sea turtle research). Great history.
From Rieser, I learned of James Parsons' book The Green Turtle and Man. In fact, I had to take a detour from reading Rieser's book to track down and read the Parsons book. Very interesting and detailed book on "the world's most valuable reptile."
Again from Rieser, I learned of Tom Harrisson's "Mass Observation" project (p. 91), where Harrisson attempted to "...reduce the popularity of turtle soup through a media campaign of letters to the editor, interviews, and articles. Consumption of turtle flesh, whether in soups, shoes, or ladies' handbags, would become a stigma instead of status symbol." And this was in the 1930s! Archie Carr wanted "... to make people think twice, maybe three times, before they ever ordered another bowl of turtle soup" (p. 134)
The turtle farming controversy made for fascinating reading as an example of incremental change in policy. David Ehrenfeld argued that it made no sense to raise green turtles as food by feeding them other marine species. Unfortunately, salmon aquaculture today has fallen into the same trap. Archie Carr, in an article in Audubon Magazine, stated "I have yet to see or hear of a work plan for any reptile ranch that shows in realistic detail how it expects to achieve a volume of production so great that it will do anything other than INCREASE [italicized] both demand and prices" (p. 193). Ironically, it is Carr's initial enthusiasm for turtle farming that started people down this road, and Carr's change of heart is well-documented in Rieser's book. In fact, Carr later wrote to a manufacturer of green turtle products that "In a civilization as technologically advanced as ours, dependence on wild animals for any commercial product is anachronistic. Certainly no fad should be allowed to threaten the existence of irreplaceable forms of life" (p. 203).
Rieser thoroughly documents her references. Her notes detail additional highlights, including these two:
"[David Ehrenfeld] cautioned against scientism, saying that 'science will need careful guidance and supervision from the other disciplines' if it is to play a positive role in the future of biological conservation" (p. 286).
"[Peter Pritchard] acknowledged that Carr 'was quite frank about his emotional attachment to his creatures when questioned by a newspaper reporter a month before he died in 1987: 'I just like the looks of their faces,' he replied.' Pritchard believes that as Carr grew older, his emotional attachment caused him to give up eating turtle meat and oppose turtle farming. Carr simply 'could not abide their killing for any reason, and broke off relationships with those who felt otherwise'" (p. 312).
I now eagerly await Volume 2... Rieser's analysis of what happens when green sea turtles are "released" from ESA protections, as is being discussed regarding the Hawaiian honu population. Can "friend" turn back into "food"?
Excellent book. Another good book regarding the history of an endangered species (with a sad ending) is A Shadow and A Song: The Struggle to Save Endangered Species.