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The Man Who Lives with Turtles

Photo of Richard Ogust The last remaining habitat of the Roti Island snake-necked turtle comprises just three freshwater pond systems on a tiny island in far eastern Indonesia. On the even smaller island of Manhattan, 10,000 miles away, 12 of these same yellow-eyed reptiles (known to herpetologists as Chelodina mccordi) can be found in a very different habitat: Richard Ogust's downtown loft, located several stories above the traffic and bustle of New York City's streets.

Ogust, a New York State-licensed wildlife rehabilitator, cares for more than 1,000 turtles of different varieties -- a collection substantially larger than the one at the world-famous Bronx Zoo. "I don't keep them as showpieces," explains Ogust, who's dressed on this chilly November day in only a T-shirt because his turtles prefer the thermostat cranked. His privately funded, 10-year-old operation is one of many "assurance colonies" organized by the Turtle Survival Alliance to protect threatened turtle species around the world. "We're in this so that 50 to 75 years from now there will actually be colonies of turtles to repatriate," he says. Currently, 67 of 90 Southeast Asian species are so depleted that the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has imposed a ban on their sale. Nonetheless, a devastating black market in turtles is booming. Ogust's menagerie includes turtles seized by customs officials at New York City's John F. Kennedy Airport and Fulton Fish Market, and Orly Airport in Paris. Without Ogust and others like him, many of these turtles would end up back in the marketplace to be sold as food or pets.

Ogust selflessly shares his 3,500-foot space with pumps that gurgle 24 hours a day. In the air hangs a faint but persistent aroma of fish. Racks of tanks and tubs are stacked to the skylights, taking over those spaces where, in an ordinary apartment, you might find a couch and a coffee table. Ogust has also built a quarantine area for sick animals and hired a full-time staff of three to help with the endless feedings and tank cleanings.

Dedicated as he is, Ogust concedes that he doesn't want to cohabit with the animals forever. With just a little more fundraising, he plans to move his collection to the Tewksbury Institute of Herpetology in New Jersey, where he hopes that the turtles -- housed in ponds that mimic their natural habitats -- will live the more countrified lifestyle to which they're accustomed.
-- Madeline Bodin

To Market, To Market

Photo of a soup bowl Herpetologists refer to it as the Asian turtle crisis: To satisfy humans' demand for meat, shells, and medicine, some 10 million turtles are plucked from the region's wild areas every year. These are among the species whose numbers are dropping.

Golden Coin Turtle
NATIVE TO: China, Vietnam, Laos, and Hong Kong
STATUS: Population down 80 percent from historical numbers
THREATENED BY: Belief that it can cure cancer
NOTEWORTHY: A single turtle now sells for $1,000.

Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle
NATIVE TO: China, Vietnam
STATUS: Only a handful remain, most in captivity.
THREATENED BY: The food trade; the species is a top choice for turtle soup.
NOTEWORTHY: One remaining member of the species lives in an extremely polluted lake in downtown Hanoi.

Spiny Turtle
NATIVE TO: Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand
STATUS: Trade has declined by 50 percent in Indonesia due to a depleted population.
THREATENED BY: The pet and food trades
NOTEWORTHY: Young spiny turtles are sold as pets; the drab older ones are sold as food.
-- M.B.

The Remains of War

Illustration of a DU-tipped cartridge

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, American and British troops fired more than 860,000 rounds of ammunition tipped with depleted uranium (DU), a highly toxic by-product of the uranium-enrichment process used to make nuclear weapons and nuclear-reactor fuel. Operation Desert Storm marked the first time that DU weapons had been used so extensively in combat, and U.S. military leaders were more than pleased with the results. While conventional munitions tend to blunt on impact, bullets and shells made from DU, which is 1.7 times denser than lead, actually become sharper as they bore through armor plating. "DU gave us a huge advantage over their tanks," said Army Colonel James Naughton at a March 2003 Pentagon press briefing.

The U.S. military used about 320 tons of DU in the first Gulf War. In the most recent Iraqi conflict, British and U.S. troops fired 1,000 to 2,000 tons of DU munitions from Abrams tanks, Apache attack helicopters, A-10 tank-buster planes, and other war machines. U.S. troops previously used DU weapons in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Much of the depleted uranium is still there, in the form of dust and munitions fragments.

Now a growing body of evidence suggests that DU weapons remain deadly long after the shooting stops. On impact, DU munitions produce a quick-burning, finely grained powder that can enter the body through shrapnel wounds or inhalation. The United Nations Environment Programme announced in March that it had found DU contamination in Bosnian soil and groundwater. In mid-April, the Royal Society, Britain's premier scientific institution, said that some soldiers may suffer from "kidney damage and an increased risk of lung cancer," depending on their levels of DU exposure. Children who play on former battlefields are especially at risk, warned the society. The British findings prompted the U.K. Ministry of Defense to offer urine tests to its veterans returning from Iraq to check for DU levels. But the U.S. Department of Defense has no plans to implement a comprehensive DU-testing program for its soldiers, and has also refused to remove DU-contaminated fragments from Iraq and other former battle sites. To defend what they call their "silver bullet," Department of Defense spokesmen contend that their own study, performed on 90 veterans exposed to high levels of DU during the first Gulf War, detected no adverse health effects. However, the group studied constitutes only a fraction of the approximately 900 vets who were exposed to high levels of DU, and even those studied are not entirely healthy: One developed a bone tumor; another has lymphoma.

Meanwhile, U.S. companies, such as Alliant Techsystems, a subsidiary of Honeywell Systems, and Primex Technologies, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, continue to step up their production of DU weapons. Munitions manufacturers in France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Pakistan have followed suit, while Israel and Thailand are also amassing smaller stocks of DU weapons.

For the last decade, Dan Fahey, a Navy veteran and weapons expert who served in the 1991 Gulf War, has been pressuring the Department of Defense to acknowledge that not nearly enough is known about the long-term hazards of DU. His persistence, and that of others, may finally be paying off. The U.N. Environment Programme has recommended that DU's effects be studied in Iraq as soon as it's feasible. And seven members of Congress recently introduced a bill mandating the study of DU's environmental and health effects wherever the substance has been deployed by the U.S. military.
-- Steve Hawley

Photo of community health workers in Harlem

How did the Harlem Hospital Center and the Harlem Children's Zone -- a nonprofit community group -- discover that one in four kids in central Harlem has asthma? By going out and testing almost every single school-age child within a 24-block radius. But the project didn't stop there. These six community health workers are helping the families of some 500 wheezing kids to identify and remove asthma triggers from the home -- cigarette smoke, musty carpets, mold, and even cockroach droppings. They're also making sure these children, many of whom don't have health insurance, get the medical care they need.

Illustration of a bighorn sheep

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
Tons of people would love to spot a Peninsular Ranges bighorn sheep in the desert canyons surrounding southern California's Coachella Valley, but sightings have become rare. A few thousand roamed freely at the beginning of the 19th century, but only about 500 members of the species survive, a predicament that earned the Peninsular Ranges bighorn a spot on the federal endangered species list in 1998. In these parts, you're more likely to see the ram, with its distinctive set of curled horns, on T-shirts sold in gift shops in nearby Palm Springs.

When they do wander down from the rocky cliffs, the terrain of the area's ever expanding golf-course communities proves lethal for the sheep. Several bighorns have drowned in swimming pools. Others have met equally dire fates crossing State Highway 111, a busy six-laner that runs along the foot of the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Community leaders in Rancho Mirage, concerned about their town's role in the deaths, came up with a novel solution: They built a five-mile-long chain-link fence near the base of the mountain range. Jointly funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Wildlife Conservation Board, and by Rancho Mirage's city council, homeowners' associations, and private citizens, the fence -- although unsightly -- is nonetheless "doing what it's supposed to do," according to project manager Bruce Williams, a city employee. Local environmentalists know they still need to address the bigger problem of runaway development, but meanwhile they hope the fence will keep the remaining sheep hidden from view and away from the lethal hazards of city living.
-- Jonathan Cook

Photos: Shell-Shacked, Steve Halin; To Market, To Market, Corbis Royalty Free; The Remains of War, AFP/Corbis; Harlem's Air Walkers, Jeff Weiner
Illustration: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, Charlie Powell

OnEarth. Summer 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council