Red-footed tortoises return!

May 24, 2022 | Argentina, Parks, Rewilding

In the largest international rewilding effort to date in South America, a group of red-footed tortoises is being released in El Impenetrable National Park. Argentina’s largest land turtle is considered ecologically extinct there.

Following the country’s first large-scale importation for rewilding, 40 red-footed tortoises have taken a plodding and determined path from Paraguay to El Impenetrable National Park in Chaco Province. It’s considered the largest international rewilding effort to date in South America. 

Their new home needs their services. Dubbed ‘gardeners of the forest,’ these tortoises consume vast quantities of native fruit, dispersing seeds that regenerate forests and diverse plant species, maintaining genetic diversity in a region among the hardest hit on the planet by deforestation.

According to Sebastián Di Martino, Conservation Director of Rewilding Argentina, “The red-footed tortoise disappeared in Argentina for several reasons, including hunting and the illegal pet trade. But the widespread destruction of the Chaco forest, their habitat, is another cause of extinction. In fact, the last known population in Argentina lived in a forest razed to plant soybeans.”

Rescued from the illegal pet trade, the red-footed tortoises underwent a lengthy quarantine in Argentina before their transfer to El Impenetrable National Park. After acclimatizing in a pre-release area for several weeks, the first ten specimens were released today. The rest will be released successively in groups of ten with tracking devices attached to their shells to monitor their behavior for research. With adult individuals weighing more than 20kg, the red-footed tortoise is Argentina’s largest land turtle species and the second largest in South America.

Onsite scientist Gerardo Ceron shared the hopeful news that two female tortoises have already laid eggs in the soil of their new home. If all goes well, they will hatch between September and November, coinciding with the first rains after the dry season. Once found throughout three provinces of Argentina, today there is little evidence of red-footed tortoises beyond a few isolated specimens. El Impenetrable National Park, a protected area where these threats are not present, is an optimal environment for their reintroduction.

“Heading into the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, we need to act now to save species. Only their presence can restore complete ecosystems and ensure planetary health for all,” says Kristine Tompkins, president of Tompkins Conservation and UN Patron of Protected Areas. 

With generous help from the Turtle Conservancy and DOB Ecology, the project is being carried out jointly by Rewilding Argentina, the National Parks Administration and the Province of Chaco, with the support of the Urutaú Wildlife Refuge in Filadelfia, Paraguay and the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development of Paraguay.