Stubborn does not come close to describing the desert tortoise, a species that did its evolving more than 220 million years ago and has since remained resolutely prehistoric.
Its slowpoke take on biological adaptation has exposed modern vulnerabilities. The persnickety reptile is today beset by respiratory infections and prone to disease. Its only defenses are the shell on its back and the scent of its unspeakably foul urine.
At the $2.2-billion BrightSource Energy solar farm in the Ivanpah Valley, the tortoise brought construction to a standstill for three months when excavation work found far more animals than biologists expected.
BrightSource has spent $56 million so far to protect and relocate the tortoises, but even at that price, the work has met with unforeseen calamity: Animals crushed under vehicle tires, army ants attacking hatchlings in a makeshift nursery and one small tortoise carried off to an eagle nest, its embedded microchip pinging faintly as it receded.
History has shown the tortoise to be a stubborn survivor, withstanding upheavals that caused the grand dinosaur extinction and ice ages that wiped out most living creatures. But unless current recovery efforts begin to gain traction, this threatened species could become collateral damage in the war against fossil fuels.
Federal authorities have charged a Japanese citizen with smuggling after customs inspectors at Honolulu airport allegedly found 42 exotic turtles in his suitcase Monday.
Hiroki Uetsuki was arraigned in U.S. District Court Tuesday on charges that he tried to smuggle the turtles through customs after arriving on a flight from Japan, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Brady said.
“The interception at the airport in Honolulu is due to the continued diligence of the inspectors,” said George Phocas, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service resident agent in charge. “It’s about protecting our environment.”
Uetsuki allegedly tried to bring in three turtle species: the Indian star tortoise, white-fronted box turtle and fly river turtle.
The white-fronted box turtle has been restricted for private and commercial import to Hawaii and must be cleared with the state. All turtles or tortoises must also be approved by the state Department of Agriculture before they can be brought into the islands.