lost turtles and tortoises
Our top “most wanted” lists by groups of species include those species that have been lost to science for at least a decade (and often for much longer!) and, like our top 25 “most wanted” species, may be lost for a variety of reasons. We worked with various IUCN Species Survival Commission Specialist Groups and other partners to determine these lists of flagship species. In some cases, biologists may be actively out searching—or interested in going out to search—for these species. In other cases, these species represent the kinds of compelling stories that can help raise their group’s public profile, even if nobody is out actively looking. They represent a broad geographical reach, and may present opportunities for inspiring conservation action. Read more about GWC's Turtle Program.
In 2021, scientists at Yale University, with support from Re:wild and other partners, confirmed a genetic match between the only individual Fernandina Galapagos Tortoise (or Fernandina Giant Tortoise)—collected in 1906—and a single female tortoise found during a 2019 expedition to Fernandina Island. The finding marked the seventh rediscovery of one of Re:wild’s original top 25 most wanted lost species and the longest lost on that list.
When the animal was found in 2019 on an expedition led by the Galápagos National Park Directorate and Galapagos Conservancy and supported by Discovery’s Animal Planet, the main question the team had to answer was whether she was, in fact the possibly extinct Fernandina Galapagos Tortoise or a different tortoise species in the form of an individual translocated from another island.
With that mystery solved, researchers will be trying to determine if there are other individuals on the island and, if so, whether they are also Fernandina Galapagos Tortoises. Fernandina Island is the youngest and least explored of the Galápagos Islands.
The Viesca Mud Turtle is currently classified as a subspecies of the Rough-footed Mud Turtle, though some researchers have considered it to represent its own species. It was last seen in the Coahuila state of Mexico, though its range could potentially extend from Coahuila into nearby Durango as well. It has been presumed extinct since about 1970, but scientists have been unable to do thorough field studies in the area due to safety concerns.
The Nubian Flapshell Turtle was last seen nearly two decades ago. Two individuals were collected from West Africa in 2000 and ended up in a private collection. Since then, no surveys of its range have successfully recovered any individuals, though local fishermen have reported unconfirmed sightings. It is thought to inhabit large rivers in the Sahel zone of Africa, specifically in parts of Ghana and Togo, and various regions east to South Sudan.
The Galápagos Islands are home to some of the world’s most unique animals, including numerous species of large, slow-moving tortoises. Each island hosts unique species, and the tortoises of Pinta Island were no exception. The lumbering animals spent their days munching grasses and cactuses, resting, and dispersing seeds in their forest habitat. But by the end of the 19th century, most of the Pinta Island Tortoises had been wiped out due to hunting. The species was assumed to be extinct—until a single male was discovered on the island in 1971, dubbed “Lonesome George.” George, the sole remaining survivor of his species, was relocated to a breeding center where herpetologists encouraged him to mate with females from the adjacent islands with similar genetics. Unfortunately, the couples weren’t successful at producing offspring.
In 2012, the death of Lonesome George, the last Pinta Giant Tortoise, made international headlines. But all hope for the species didn’t die with George, whose legacy still serves as an important symbol for conservation efforts in the Galápagos Islands. A 2012 expedition to Isabella Island found 17 first-generation hybrid offspring. Because those specimens were
juveniles, their parents—including a Pinta Giant Tortoise—might still be alive.
The Floreana Galapagos Tortoise has been considered extinct since 1850, though hybridized tortoises of this species have been found on the northern region of Isabela Island near Volcan Wolf. It’s estimated that early populations of this species reached numbers as high as 8,000 individuals in the earlier half of the 19th century, and were driven to extinction by 1850 presumably by mariners that needed sustenance and sources for oil.
Rampant pet collection and trade has driven the Chinese Red-necked Turtle, one of the rarest aquatic species in China, to near or possible extinction in the wild. The species’ habitat, forested hill streams of southern China, is also at risk with the threat of degradation in the area. Field surveys in its possible range will determine how many individuals remain in the wild, and whether suitable habitat persists where the re-introduction of captive-bred Individuals could potentially recover this species into the wild.
The Roti Snake-necked Turtle’s population has been jeopardized over the last couple of decades as a direct result of the pet trade’s insatiable appetite for this exclusive species . It is only known to have existed on the Indonesian Island of Roti and in Timor-Leste, although recent field surveys in Roti have failed to find any individuals of this particular species. A subspecies of C. mccordi has persisted in Timor-Leste and island leaders have declared its habitat protected under their traditional laws. Captive breeding groups of the Roti form exist and it should be possible that this species will be recovered through reintroduction into suitable habitat once that is securely protected from poaching.
This entire group of Chinese Box turtles has possibly gone extinct as a result of the unbridled over-collection for the international pet trade. Despite many field surveys in search of these turtles, scientists have not ever found several in the wild, yet they exist in captivity and still on occasion appear in trade. Little is known about most of these species, for some, even their country of origin remains a mystery. According to Peter Paul van Dijk, deputy chair of the IUCN SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, "the chances of a biologist finding one of the Chinese Cuora in the wild is akin to finding a ten-carat diamond on a beach."