Captive Tortoises MUST NOT be Released
to the Wild UNDER ANY CONDITION
Release of captive tortoises into the wild is a violation of the Federal Endangered Species Act. Now that the Mojave desert tortoise is Federally-listed as a threatened species, some owners of captives may not want to keep their pets. They may be concerned about having an unregistered tortoise or illegal captive. Some illegally held captives have actually been held in captivity for many years. In other cases owners of captives may be moving or the captive may be ill.
Even if the captive is not registered or has been in captivity illegally, it must not be returned to the wild. It must be placed in a government-approved adoption program (see Laws Regarding Wild and Captive Tortoises are Different, as well as Management of Captive Tortoises). You can help protect wild populations by ensuring that captives are not released into the wild. You may have to use your best public communication skills to do so.
One major cause of declines in wild tortoise populations is an Upper Respiratory Tract Disease, specifically mmycoplasmosis. This disease, which experts believe may have been introduced into wild populations through releases of ill captives, is highly infectious to tortoises, chronic and often fatal. The disease has swept through large parts of the desert and is contributing to extraordinarily high mortality rates. In some parts of the desert, 90% of the tortoises appear to have died between the late 1980s and mid 1990s from this disease.
Please emphasize to all those who request information (and to those who don't):
• Upper Respiratory Tract Disease is caused by very small bacteria (Mycoplasma). The bacteria were identified in 1992 as the cause of the disease by a team of veterinary research scientists at the University of Florida, supported in part by funds from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management.
• There is no evidence that the Upper Respiratory Tract Disease found in tortoises (symptoms include wet, runny, or stuffed-up nose, sniffles, lethargy) is harmful or contagious to people. The pathogens appear to be specific to tortoises and possibly to some other reptiles. Upper Respiratory Tract Disease has been well known in captive populations for decades and has not harmed people.
• Many captives have Upper Respiratory Tract Disease and other diseases but appear to be healthy. A large portion of the captive population may be silent carriers of the disease. Veterinarians can only confirm whether a tortoise is infected by using special tests.
• Unlike wild tortoises, captives with the disease can be kept alive and healthy through good husbandry practices for many years. Such captives must be provided with adequate high quality food and water.
• Upper Respiratory Tract Disease is only one of several infectious diseases that can be introduced to wild tortoises if captives are released to the desert. Herpes virus is another disease.
Therefore, captive tortoises must not be released into wild populations under any circumstances. An adoptive home can be found for almost any captive that is no longer wanted (see Management Of Captive Tortoises).