Combat Center opens tortoise nursery

23 May 2006 | Lance Cpl. Michael S. Cifuentes

Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs officially opened a sanctuary for desert tortoises aboard the Combat Center May 23 in a ribbon cutting ceremony held in front of the sanctuary in the Sand Hill training area.

Brig. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, Combat Center’s commanding general, and Lt. Col. Jon M. Aytes, director of NREA, cut the ribbon to the facility, named the David J. Morafka Desert Tortoise Hatchery-Nursery, in memory of a renowned professor, herpetologist and expert tortoise biologist.

The sanctuary, nicknamed the “Davey-Joe Pen” by NREA members, is currently being used as a data-gathering facility for desert tortoise experiments.

Desert Tortoises have inhabited the high desert terrain since the time when the area was covered with shallow lakes and grasslands.

The plan to build the facility began a year ago, and was created by NREA staff members with the help of Combat Center Marines. The purpose was to build a safe haven for the tortoises, some of which have been discovered by NREA specialists as having a virus, said Dr. Kenneth A. Nagy, a professor of biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has been an active member in the desert tortoise research. Research will be conducted on the virus, and hopefully the facility can also help increase the desert tortoise population, added Nagy.

According to NREA, the tortoises have not been able to adapt very well to the western Mojave Desert’s expanding human population. For this reason, in 1990 the desert tortoise was added to the list of threatened and endangered animal species protected by the Endangered Species Act.

“We’re going to have people on this base spearhead this project — people with a lot of academic credibility,” said Aytes.

“This is a very complicated critter and even the smartest mind can’t get his arms around it,” he continued. “But what counts is that at the end of the day, we try to do something good ... We’re doing something good by bringing people here that know a lot about these tortoises through education and research. Hopefully, by what we’re doing here today, we can deepen and broaden, and can find out more about their genetics, and flat out ‘make’ more tortoises.”

Since the beginning of the desert tortoise research here, everyone focused on adult and female tortoises, said Nagy.  However, the adult population has continued to decrease at a rapid rate.

“Our idea now is to protect the babies for a while until we feel we can release them to reproduce on their own,” said Nagy.

There are two pens at the controlled research areas at the sanctuary — one for sick tortoises and one for healthy tortoises. There are three sick tortoises and 22 healthy tortoises aboard the sanctuary. Both pens are sectioned off by wire fences with a screen to protect the tortoises from touching one another, said Nagy.

“The social recognition for adult tortoises is touching noses,” said Nagy. “The mucus in the snotty nose is what is known to transmit the disease.

“Because of the big effort the Marines on this base are making, many desert tortoises can be helped,” added Nagy. “We are very grateful for the use of the land and for contributing morale and financial support.”

It is a privilege to represent the Marine Corps, and the base specifically, in Marine Corps values and stewarding the ecological system, said Stone.

“This is a good example where Marines show care for the environment,” said Stone. “I try to make every Marine have an eye for what goes on out here in our training area. I think they all genuinely care in their hearts about the tortoise. I have seen a good change over many years in the care we have for the tortoise. 

“This also is not an isolated program,” continued Stone. “I hope the rest of the community will advance in saving the species. We’re dealing with a species that outdates mankind, now mankind is helping them live on. The tortoises won’t make it without our protection.”