Dear Valued Supporter,
While these are indeed troubled times for turtles, today the same can be said for the people that help ensure their survival. We want you to know that our thoughts are with you – our friends, supporters, and partners – as we navigate this uncertain and very challenging time. This report will help you understand how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the TSA staff and field programs, and assure you that we are doing all we can to protect our front-line staff, many of whom are now coping with the harsh realities of being isolated away from families in remote locations.
At the Charleston office, most staff are working from home except for our brave Emily who is keeping the office open for mail and deliveries. So, if you need merchandise, our online store is open for you to place your order. The Turtle Survival Center is closed to visitors, and obviously all outreach events have been canceled. Jordan is using this time wisely to provide content for our home-bound supporters and to date has produced three webinars which have been very popular.
Here is a brief summary of our field programs:
• Myanmar: Staff are sheltering in place and working from home where possible. Kalyar and Steve are out of the field and are managing projects remotely through local field staff. All animal facilities are still operational, with most staff living near or onsite, and the thousands of animals that depend on them are being fed and cared for. Unfortunately, due to the loss of a major donor, the Turtle Rescue Center – home to over 3,000 confiscated turtles – is now operating in the red and is desperate for funding.
• India: The government shutdown came hard and fast, stranding some of our staff in remote locations; Shai is trying to arrange permission for their transfer. Arunima is handling the collection at Kukrail by herself at the moment. Elsewhere, staff are trying to keep up with the demands of feeding their turtles and tortoises amid store closures and travel bans. However, our biggest challenge is financial: with nearly 85% of the India program funded by zoos and grants, we are facing some austere money-saving measures including furloughs and salary reductions. Fortunately, our partner WCS generously stepped in and is providing payroll support for all staff through April. With no end in sight to this pandemic, India will no doubt be our hardest hit program because of our reliance on small grants.
• Colombia: The country is in full lock-down with a state of emergency declared, so all field activities have been canceled and staff told to work from home. Fortunately, the nesting season for the two Podocnemis river turtle programs was already nearing an end so didn’t miss much; the student who is tracking dispersal from Giant South American River Turtle nest sites was able to remain in the field due to the remoteness of the location. Eggs from Magdalena River Turtles have been collected and are in incubators, but this community-run project depends on ecotourism dollars which are currently non-existent. Fortunately, our ranger is still doing daily patrols of the new protected reserve for the Dahl’s Toad-headed Turtle.
• Madagascar: The country is taking COVID-19 quite seriously and firm travel restrictions are being enforced. Rebuilding efforts from the September 2019 fire at the Tortoise Conservation Center (TCC) were about 85% complete when the masons returned to the capital to be with their families during this crisis. Likewise, building the new school nearby has been pushed back and the April 2020 tortoise roundup at the TCC was postponed until September. Fortunately, our solar power system was fully restored a few months ago so the TCC is back online with security and communications. However, for the roughly 24,000 Radiated Tortoises living at our two Centers in the south, life goes on. Fortunately, most staff live on site and local villagers continue to collect, grow, and deliver food on a regular basis.
• Belize: Our partner in Hicatee (Central American River Turtle) conservation, BFREE, is struggling to make ends meet and all non-essential staff have been furloughed. With Belize’s borders closed and Universities canceling their Spring classes, about 75% of BFREE’s annual income has dried up. The Hicatee Research & Conservation Center there is still operational as TSA administered manager Tom Pop’s annual salary before the economic downturn. On the upside, Team Hicatee now has a dedicated project vehicle, a low mileage 4WD Toyota Hi Lux.
• North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group: With parks closed in Florida and Texas, all programs and spring surveys have been canceled until further notice.
The Bottom Line: In the coming months, the TSA will be faced with some daunting challenges brought on by the financial crisis, and hard decisions will have to be made. We are projecting serious shortfalls in donations from foundations, zoos, and private sectors in the range of 45-65%; grant money will be tight as well. Zoos and aquariums represent a major source of TSA income, but all are closed to the public, and many are laying off staff. When they reopen, conservation giving will be greatly reduced, and we expect to see at least a 60% drop from this sector.
Because of the large number of live animals that we maintain in our breeding, head start, and rescue centers around the world, we are not able to lay off large numbers of staff while the economy recovers. We have a sacred obligation to continue feeding the tens of thousands of turtles and tortoises that are under our care and depend on us for survival. We expect our biggest budget deficits in India, Myanmar, and Madagascar where we have the largest number of captive animals.
A full 25% of our operating revenue comes from general public donations. If we can sustain this, it will greatly help us through this crisis. While we are sensitive to the hardships that many of you are enduring, we recognize that many of our supporters are better positioned to weather the storm. Please remember the TSA when your relief check arrives if you have a little left over after paying your bills. The TSA has faced many challenges during our nearly 20-year history and we have always managed to persevere and overcome the odds. But, we have never faced anything like this. We are confident that we will get through this together, but it will require the continued support of our TSA family of friends and supporters.
Please be safe, careful, healthy, and stay at home. And whatever you’re doing, try to do it with a smile.
Rick Hudson, President
Turtle Survival Alliance