Peter Pritchard has a ready answer to why people like turtles and tortoises. “A tortoise is an animal you can pick up and plunk down,” he says. “It doesn’t run away at speed. It gives you plenty of time to contemplate it.
“And, if like me, you like to travel,” Pritchard continues, “then you will find turtles in a lot of different places.”
Pritchard, 65, has traveled the world in service of these incredibly varied encarapaced reptiles, many of which are threatened today. Among the most eminent turtle zoologists on the planet, Pritchard is well-known for his more than four decades advocating for the study and conservation of turtles.
Toward that end, the transplanted Englishman – educated at Oxford University and University of Florida – runs the privately funded Chelonian Research Institute for the study and preservation of turtles in Oviedo, FL.
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In 2000, Time magazine named Pritchard one of its “Heroes for the Planet.” His son asked, “Which planet?”
Pritchard’s wife, Sibille, a native Guyanese who serves on numerous public service committees and is President of the Orlando Ballet, keeps him modest by describing her husband as half Indiana Jones, half Monty Python character.
Pritchard, who has amassed over 13,000 tortoise and turtle skeletons, may be best known for his fieldwork in Guyana and the Galapagos. Guyana beaches are nesting grounds for four of the world’s seven known sea turtle species: leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), green (Chelonia mydas), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricate) and olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea).
Guyana’s sea turtles were being overhunted by local Arawak Indians until Pritchard developed plans to save the turtles by recruiting the hunters themselves to become the turtle protectors.
Life on the Hard Shell
Pritchard has mentored many turtle scientists and conservationists, including Rod Mast of Conservation International (CI). “Peter is literally the godfather of turtles,” says Mast. “He provides a long term perspective for the conservation community.”
Mast was in Australia with Pritchard earlier this year. “He just towers above people,” Mast says, referring to Pritchard’s scholarship and storytelling as much as his 6-foot-4 frame. “He’s a leatherback among men.”
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Growing up in what he refers to as “the tortoise-free environment of Great Britain,” Pritchard did not encounter his first turtle until a trip to the London Zoo at age seven. The giant tortoises there made a lasting impression. As a teenager, he thumbed Archie Carr’s “Handbook of Turtles” until it fell to pieces.
Pritchard saw his first turtle in the wild when, as a college student (a chemistry major, no less), he visited Atlanta, Georgia and saw one paddling in a lake near Emory University.
The following year, Pritchard joined an Oxford expedition to northern Iran to study soil and tortoises. “I wasn’t a soil scientist, but I did assigned duties,” he says. “I was intrigued by the turtles I found there.” Pritchard returned to England with six large tortoises and some freshwater turtles. The year was 1963, and the customs officials barely batted an eye at the odd import.
The expedition is so rooted in Pritchard’s mind that when he sat down to write his autobiography, Tales from the Thebaide, 43 years later, “I was able to recall everything that happened, day to day.” The rest, of course, is hard-shelled history.
Why Save Turtles?
Turtles matter, Pritchard says, because of their diverse adaptations to many ecosystems. “Some are six feet long and weigh 1,500 pounds, while others are barely three-and-a-half inches and three ounces,” he says. The extraordinary thing is they’ve evolved to a spectrum of different forms – yet all are faithful to their body plan.”
“Why save turtles?” people ask. Pritchard replies: “I don’t think an animal should be required to justify itself in terms of human benefits.”
In addition to current fieldwork researching giant tortoises in the Galapagos, Pritchard is also studying an almost extinct species, the Yangtze giant soft-shell (Rafetus swinhoei), a freshwater turtle species that is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List.
Pritchard shows no signs of slowing down, either in traveling, collecting, writing, or spreading his philosophy. A love of turtles has brought him conversation time with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and even former President Richard Nixon. He also talks turtle with poachers, children, social outcasts, and even developers. “It quickly becomes just two people talking about turtles,” he says.
“I call it ‘travel with a theme’,” says Pritchard of his journeys to help save the world’s turtles. An additional benefit of turtle fieldwork, he says, is the warm welcome from villagers in remote places, who offer the chance to share their way of life, their culture, and even their dinner.
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