The Opposite of Apocalypse

Conservationists are restoring a living tortoise fossil to its prehistoric range. Can we recreate nature?

Photograph of a hatchling at Ladder Ranch by Steve Dobrott

Somewhere in Eden, after all this time,
does there still stand, abandoned, like
a ruined city, gates sealed with grisly nails,
the luckless garden?
—Ina Rousseau, “Eden”

How do I fill you with awe for the tortoise? Do I begin with its unforeseen beauty, the jet-and-topaz carapace, the forelegs that seem scaled with mother-of-pearl? With the fact that it can live for a year or more without food or water? That the females can sequester sperm, parcelling out the reproductive benefits of a single, awkward act of sex over years of solitary life? That it evolved some two million years—two million years—ahead of human beings? That the specific species in front of me, a bolson tortoise, known to science as Gopherus flavomarginatus, was unknown to science until 1959, the year nasa selected its first astronauts for human space flight, despite the fact that the animal is the largest land reptile in North America outside the tropics, can grow to the breadth and heft of a medicine ball, and can live for a hundred years? Or maybe all I need say is this: that the beasts will make eye contact and, with what one tortoise researcher calls “ecological wisdom,” appear to divine human intentions, whether good or ill.

The bolson tortoise, this miracle, stands beneath the Chihuahuan Desert sun. It shifts its weight. Then—yes—it blinks. “This is typical behaviour,” deadpans my companion, a wildlife habitat ecologist named Joe Truett.

I had come to the tortoise because I was tired of brooding about the present. To pay attention to the science of biology or its subject, the multiform living world, is to acknowledge the times as grim without relent. The best available evidence suggests that we are free-falling through what is widely known as the “sixth extinction”—a fading-to-black of species that recalls five earlier spasms of mass loss imprinted in the fossil record, from the Ordovician extinction, 439 million years ago, in which 85 percent of animal life died off, to the most recent Cretaceous extinction, which sidelined 76 percent, among them the dinosaurs. Our current trajectory can be measured any number of ways, from gross approximations that consider up to 38 percent of the planet’s life forms to be vulnerable to near-term extinction, to such precise injuries as the Central American deforestation that has left almost half the Americas’ wood thrushes in marginal wintering territory, where they succumb to predators at four times the usual rate. Examples emerge almost daily. 1

The biologist Norman Myers, who in 1979 authored the groundbreaking book on the sixth extinction, The Sinking Ark, alluded to a more encompassing term, the “great dying.” Extinction, after all, is the outcome of a process. Far more visible and constant is extirpation, a term that, in the life sciences, refers to the disappearance of particular species from particular places. For example: as a child, my back door spilled out onto rolling grasslands in which I knew the location of every fox den within two hours’ walk. Much of that prairie is now a suburb, and the foxes are gone. Extirpation is extinction made personal. Extinction is the accumulation of extirpation.

But there I go again. Brooding.

The bolson tortoise does not call to mind the present day. It is an incarnation of deep time, a shambling manifestation of antiquity. It is literally a dinosaur. In the pace of its movements, its habits, it seems reluctant to share the postmodern globe with you and me. In fact, it hardly does. The tortoise is exquisitely rare, with a wild population restricted to a remote series of desert bolsons (large basins) north of Torreón, Mexico, that is officially gazetted as the Bolsón de Mapimí but is more famously and forebodingly known as the Zona del Silencio. The independent Instituto de Ecología in Veracruz estimates a free-living tortoise population of 1,600. 2 To put that in perspective, the panda—that icon of endangerment—numbers exactly the same in the wild.

I could say, then, that the tortoise taking the sun in front of Truett and me was yet another member of the near-extinct menagerie, but that would be the bleak language of the present. In early autumn 2006, as senior biologist for the Turner Endangered Species Fund, Truett oversaw the transfer of twenty-six bolson tortoises from a private reserve in Elgin, Arizona, to the 150,000-hectare Armendaris Ranch, a property near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, that belongs to media billionaire and conservationist Ted Turner. During the four-hour drive, the animals, hunkered in open-top Rubbermaid bins, were transformed from captive endangered species into something more ambitious and perhaps quixotic. A play on words is unavoidable: the bolson tortoise was about to make prehistory.

For millennia, the Chihuahuan Desert of what came to be New Mexico was almost certainly the range of wild bolson tortoises. Then, about 10,000 years ago, late in the Pleistocene epoch, they disappeared. According to the fossil record, blackened tortoise shells, emptied of flesh, began to show up alongside the bones of an array of huge animals, or megafauna, in the fireside garbage dumps of human beings, a species then spreading rapidly across the Americas. The bolson tortoise project at Armendaris Ranch aims to redress that ancient age of extermination. When the tortoises arrived at Truth or Consequences, it marked the first deliberate restoration of a prehistoric species in the Americas. It is a homecoming that can’t help but raise questions, including one that qualifies, I think, as a doozy: when we look at nature, what are we actually seeing?

Truett and I move on, leaving behind the blinking, basking tortoise and threading between rakes of honey mesquite and staghorn cholla cactus. The earth is sepia and softly crusted, the air so dry it stirs a hard-wired fear. A wind blows. It blows the hat off your head and the sunglasses off your face and every trace of moisture off your skin and your teeth. “Wind is common here,” says Truett with the precision of a lifelong scientist. “Strong winds are common.” The tortoise burrows appear suddenly. They look like bomb craters, pits surrounded by wind-smoothed rings of ejecta. At the mouth of one, we surprise another tortoise. It rocks its weight back into the hole, where it shuffles crosswise, corking the burrow with its body. Wedged against all comers. Only then does it make eye contact.

Images courtesy of the Turner Endangered Species Fund
Images courtesy of the Turner Endangered Species Fund Tortoise egg at Armendaris Ranch, New Mexico.

The narrative transformation of the bolson tortoise from hospice species to time traveller begins, unexpectedly, with lions in Oklahoma.

We climb into Truett’s pickup and rattle from Armendaris Ranch to the freeway, Truett knuckling the wheel against the wind-suck through the gulches, heading southwest to another Turner property. Ladder Ranch is half the size of Armendaris, but still a lot larger than you’d want to walk across under any kind of sun. They keep the baby tortoises there, hatchlings already the size of baseballs, but I am more interested in a century-old stone and mortar ranch building overlooking the improbable green swale of Las Animas Creek. “It was a good place for a discussion,” says Truett, “insulated from reality.”

In September 2004, he joined thirteen other leading conservation thinkers at the Ladder Ranch lodge for a two-day brainstorm on the restoration of North America’s “evolutionary and ecological potential.” In an easy chair beneath the trophy head of a mule deer sat the guru of the gathering, Paul Martin, the desert zoologist whose overkill hypothesis first championed the idea that the spread of humankind is largely to blame for the worldwide megafaunal extinctions of the past 50,000 years. Seated along a Last Supper–style table were a dozen other luminaries—what Josh Donlan, the Cornell University graduate student who helped organize the meeting, called “National Academy, silverback, rock star scientists,” among them Michael Soulé, considered by many to be the father of conservation biology; and Dave Foreman, a founder of the direct-action Earth First! environmentalist network. Up for discussion: the possibility that conservation is on the wrong path as it fights to preserve an archipelago of “pristine” wilderness areas from the juggernaut of humanity.

To understand the hollow promise of these parks and protected areas, it is necessary to revisit the late Pleistocene. The landscape of North America at that time, say 15,000 years ago, was in many ways familiar. The last ice age glaciers were still receding toward the Arctic, but they were doing so through seasons much like ours today. There were mountains where we have mountains, plains where we have plains. Streaming throughout was a bestiary of giants that strains the imagination.

The best known are probably the mammoths and mastodons, which ranged in size from Columbian mammoths two storeys tall at the withers to pygmy varieties that stood only head high to a human being. On the grasslands, they may have roved in densities similar to those of elephants in African parks today, more than three animals per square kilometre. But these trunked and tusked beasts were nothing more than the Pleistocene’s comforting opening act. North America was home to pampatheres, which resembled armadillos the size of overturned dories, and another armoured family, the glyptodonts, at their largest the size of a subcompact car. There were ground sloths—amiable-looking herbivores that, standing on their hind legs to browse the woodlands, would have been an awesome presence, with the largest weighing in at nearly three tonnes. There were herds of wild horses, some as heavy as today’s draft horses; and tapirs rooting through the wetland; and an antelope called the saiga, with a pouchy snout that acted as an air filter (it still exists today, as a critically endangered species in Central and Northeast Asia). Wild oxen drank at watering holes alongside camels that would tower over today’s dromedaries. One such humped species, the camelops, could be found in herds from the US Southwest to the Subarctic, where its bones sometimes washed out in Klondike gold digs. There were giant moose, giant llamas, giant elk, giant boars. There was a vampire bat twice the size of any known today. There was a beaver the size of a black bear.

Consider the carnivores. Packs of dire wolves were widespread, the animals heavier by ten kilograms than modern wolves but still far from the most fearsome predators in the Pleistocene wilderness. That title might go to the giant short-faced bear, a dedicated flesh eater large enough to look into your eyes while still on all fours. The greatest feline, still haunting the pop-up book nightmares of children, was the sabre-toothed cat, the ultimate ambush predator, with serrated canine teeth as long as chef’s knives, and a body smaller than that of today’s lions but nearly twice as heavy. And there were prides of American lions, akin to those in Africa and India in every way but one: they were larger. Many of these species still survived as recently as 10,000 years ago, in climes similar to ours. Put another way, lions and sabre tooths lived within the myth time of North America’s First Nations. They lived at a time only as distant from the founding of farming in Europe as that founding is from us today.

The list goes on, from scavenging birds with wingspans of nearly five metres to beetles adapted to rolling the dung of giants, but lest we forget: there were tortoises. Six big species roamed widely below the glaciers, enduring the coming and going of ice ages. Among them was the bolson tortoise, which might once have grown to 160 kilograms, ten times the size of the largest individuals today. 3 Picture the tortoise basking. Picture it in its burrow, the heavy tromping of megafauna overhead. Picture it at its peak as a species, roaming the breadth of today’s Chihuahuan Desert from what is now New Mexico, Arizona, and western Texas to almost the entire Mexican Plateau, an area larger than the Yukon Territory.

The men and women who came together for the Ladder Ranch workshop concerned themselves with a simple question: do modern human beings have ecological, aesthetic, and even moral reasons to attempt to recreate the Pleistocene? The answer they arrived at was “maybe.” The group began to moot what they would later describe as “a series of carefully managed ecosystem manipulations using closely related species as proxies for extinct large vertebrates.” This “Pleistocene rewilding,” the group agreed, had the potential to revitalize conservation biology (and, by association, the environmental movement) by steering it away from “managing extinction” in last-ditch protected areas. The discussion was, despite the rather cautious language of science, the makings of a manifesto that would declare an end to the conservation century and the dawn of an age of restoration.

The proposed manipulations—introducing experimental wild populations of horses, camels, and elephants, for example—had as a natural end point “the ultimate in Pleistocene rewilding for North America”: a free-living population of lions, limited only by the kind of perimeter fencing that encloses African parks, somewhere among the southern Great Plains states of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. But the program needed an initial stepping stone, a species that could test the rewilding hypothesis on a short timeline, with few ecological risks, and a comparatively low level of controversy. What was needed, as one tortoise researcher would later put it to me, was “the medical marijuana of Pleistocene rewilding.”

It was pure serendipity that two grasslands ecologists, Carl and Jane Bock, now professors emeriti at the University of Colorado, Boulder, had arrived at the Ladder Ranch with tortoises on their minds. During a break in the meeting, the Bocks approached Joe Truett and his colleague Steve Dobrott. Might the Turner Fund be interested in the little-known bolson tortoise? The Bocks had worked for thirty years near Elgin, Arizona, on a research preserve founded by a naturalist, Ariel Appleton, who in 1973 had taken a colony of Mexican bolson tortoises into captivity as a backstop against the species’ possible extinction. Appleton had died earlier in 2004, and the animals needed a new home. It was Harry Greene, a Cornell reptile expert, who overheard the conversation and made a synaptic leap: the bolson tortoise met all the group’s criteria for the rewilding experiment. “The bolson tortoise would be perfect,” he said.

In August 2005, the rewilding proposal appeared as a commentary in the journal Nature. The response was explosive. Some opposing scientists pointed out that the article ran in the same issue as a study showing that lion attacks on humans in Tanzania had risen 300 percent in the past fifteen years. Good Morning America broadcast a brief interview with rewilding proponents, followed by a clip from the film Jumanji of elephants crushing cars. It was the first time many people had heard that North America was once home to giants and monsters, and reactions tended toward the visceral. Several threatening letters sent to Cornell were judiciously turned over to the authorities. Surprise offers of rewilding habitat rolled in from ranchers in Texas, Arizona, Kansas.

Then, on August 23, Tropical Depression Twelve, south of the Bahamas, began to gyre toward the US shore, and within a matter of days the Pleistocene was forgotten once again amid the horrors of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans. The excitement over rewilding had lasted less than a month, but it had been, in Josh Donlan’s words, “the largest ecological history lesson in American history.”

Photograph of a hatchling at Ladder Ranch by Steve Dobrott
Steve Dobrott A hatchling at Ladder Ranch.

Tracing the history of the human relationship to our ecology is a new academic endeavour, just a few decades old, and its first principle could be said to be this: to know what is, you must know what was. Consider the Caribbean population of the green sea turtle, a distant relative of the bolson tortoise, which now sits at 300,000. Measured against the green turtle’s near-extinction in the early twentieth century, the figure is a triumph, to the extent that some biologists question whether the International Union for Conservation of Nature should continue to list the green turtle as an endangered species. Look at that datum from a more distant historical baseline, however, and it rapidly loses its cheery sheen.

In 2006, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography led an attempt to determine historical peak numbers of Caribbean sea turtles based on 163 sources, including Charles de Rochefort’s 1666 The History of the Caribby-islands, and “the first American novel,” William Williams’ semi-autobiographical Mr. Penrose: The Journal of Penrose, Seaman. These yielded an estimated original Caribbean green turtle population of 91 million adults. Try to imagine the bounty: sea floor grass beds grazed by turtle hordes; beaches roiled by the flipper churn of nesting females; turtles peering from reefs, lolling in surf; an endless shoal of turtles, a flock of turtles, a drift of turtles, a tedium of turtles—more than 300 times as many as today. Can we really say that the green turtle is no longer endangered?

In 1995, Daniel Pauly, a professor with the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia, coined the term “shifting baselines” to describe the tendency of his peers to measure the health of fish stocks against the length of their own careers. Each generation bemoaned the losses that occurred on their watch, but failed to acknowledge the accumulation of extirpations across centuries, if not millennia—“a gradual accommodation,” Pauly wrote, of “creeping disappearance.” The revelation came to him in part from a study he published as editor of an academic journal concerned with aquatic resource management. The article amounted to a scientific review of Sea of Slaughter, Farley Mowat’s 1984 chronicle of Atlantic overfishing, which he based on five years spent reading anecdotal historical accounts. The authors of the study concluded that biomass—literally the weight of life itself—in the North Atlantic has likely declined by 97 percent since written records began. Mowat, exhausting language in his effort to express this reality, refers to the drawdown as “a massive diminution of the entire body corporate of animate creation.” The report’s authors applied the term “genocidal.”

Scientists do not typically embrace anecdotal evidence, however—the authors of the Sea of Slaughter study refer to Mowat’s data as “data,” in quotation marks. In 2005, Andrea Sáenz-Arroyo, science director of the Mexican non-profit organization Comunidad y Biodiversidad, led an attempt to quantitatively test the shifting baselines syndrome. She and her team interviewed fishers in eleven communities along the central Gulf of California, which separates the Baja Peninsula from mainland Mexico. The world remembered by fishers who have passed their fifty-fifth birthdays proves far richer than the real world of the present, with five times as many commercial fish species and four times as many productive fishing grounds. 4 It is a world in which a fisherman could hope to boast of twenty-five Gulf grouper as a day’s catch, enough to feed 700 people or more, each fish with an outraged, grey-lipped mouth that could take in a man’s head and shoulders. Most older fishers consider the Gulf grouper stock depleted; the new generation, who on a good day might catch one or two of the great predators, each smaller by twenty kilograms than the fish their grandfathers caught, does not. A study of the upper Gulf of California published in March 2008 confirmed Sáenz-Arroyo’s work and made this critical connection: “It is crucial for the restoration of this ecosystem that young fishers and the Mexican public are able to visualize previous states of their local ecosystems.”

The same could be said of almost any people in almost any place—probably every place—on earth. The effect has been called a “double disappearance”: first, we lose a forest, or a species of tortoise, or the abundance of a fish; then we lose the memory that it ever existed. Standing on the Armendaris Ranch, the Chihuahuan Desert looks to me something close to untouched. The land itself seems to whisper that history here is as rare as rain and as thin as leaf litter. I find it hard to believe that the bolson tortoise could have been eradicated from the whole of this single, sprawling basin, let alone nearly every square inch of North America’s largest desert. What could work this dark miracle?

To answer that question, we might follow the thread from the present day backward through time. We would start in the Bolsón de Mapimí in Mexico, the last redoubt of the wild bolson tortoise, and reel in first the recent decades, when anyone who cared to look would find excavated burrows, animals living as ranch house pets, carapaces used as water bowls or abandoned alongside cowboys’ campfire ashes. Reel in all those years when truckers would stop along the highways to pick up campesinos’ oxcart loads of tortoises, bound south for Mexico City or north to the border (turtle soup was popular in California, they say). Take away the new toll highway, and old Highway 49, which made it possible to actually live in the desert, in the godforsaken bolsons, if you happened to have nowhere else on earth to live. Take away the pemex oil survey roads, and the hungry road crews, the cruelty of young men gathered too long away from women and elders and children.

The 1920s, when the bolsons were razed for farming, the mule-driving teams remembered for culling ten or more big tortoises for Saturday-night fiestas, the chief driver saving the largest for his breakfast. 5 The Great Wax Rush of the early 1900s, the candelilleros skiping every limestone slope and coulee for the candelilla plant, or gathering the creosote wood to fuel the factory boilers that cooked off the waxy scurf, the men and their burros prospecting as far as packed water would allow and living off the land, eating jackrabbits, eating tortoises. In 1882, the Mexican Central Railway, opening “the last frontier,” and the crew that built the rail line, 300 badly paid men roasting tortoises at their fires, or shipping them south to Mexico City, already home to a quarter million residents.

Before the railroad, there were shepherds and goatherds, and, on the better country, ranchers—Spanish colonists who, with the coming of cool weather each fall, manned signal fires on the highest summits to warn of Comanche and Kiowa raiding parties. Earlier still were the conquistadores, who despite their Iberian horses feared the hardpan playas, empty of water, wood, or forage, and who named one dreaded crossing—the site of the Armendaris Ranch today—the Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of the Dead Man. On one Spanish advance across the Jornada, thirty women and children died from thirst and exposure.

Apache and Uto-Aztecan tribes, salt traders and gatherer-hunters whose arrowheads turn up in the white loam of the desert even today, did not linger in the shadowless basins, but lived instead in canyons or along distant rivers. They consumed the desert; they ate tortoises. So did their antecedents, hundreds of thousands of people through 10,000 years of civilization, dozens of cultures rising, falling, blending together back in time until that moment when the first far-faring human hunter stooped to the easy meal of one bolson tortoise, motionless on the ground, forelegs covering its eyes.

Today the bolson tortoise exists in 1 percent or less of its prehistoric range. Though some scientists believe climate change caused the collapse of the megafauna, the timing, pattern of retreat, history, and susceptibility of the tortoise all suggest human-driven extirpation. And one piece of evidence towers above the others: we’re still doing it. “Perhaps the best modern analogue to human invasion of the New World is our current exploitation of the oceans,” wrote David Morafka, then the world’s leading bolson tortoise expert, in 1988. “Just as on land, large sea turtles have not been exempt; their eggs are removed from shore nests while adults are harpooned at sea.”

The miracle is not that the tortoise has disappeared, but that it has survived at all.

Photograph of small bolson tortoise at Bolsón de Mapimí by Myles Traphagen
Myles Traphagen Small bolson tortoise at Bolsón de Mapimí.

The past is a bittersweet destination. The almost magical plenitude is a pleasure to dwell in, but there is tragedy in the knowledge that it could not, did not, hold. Still, it is instructive, revealing the living world as an echo and a shadow of what came before. We wake up and go to work and plan camping holidays and drop the kids off at the beach, in what I’ve come to think of as a Ten-Percent World. Is it the world in which we want to live?

Joe Truett, sitting with me in the shade of an elm tree, doesn’t see the answer as obvious. He’s not a fan of rewilding’s language of loss, which labels North America “a continent of ghosts”—which sees a wilderness that is “incomplete” and “impoverished,” a nature that “may not be natural at all.” 6 He acknowledges that, for example, most of the North American range, including the Chihuahuan Desert, can now be summed up as a straight-line energy flow: uniform stands of grass being eaten by cows that are eaten by humans. The few side chains—a modest colony of prairie dogs; coyotes eating mice and jackrabbits—only serve to hint at a web of life that has been rendered threadbare. But a grassland, says Truett, still looks like a grassland—still is a grassland. Grass eaten by cows eaten by humans remains an ecosystem. To be precise, it is an ecosystem that has far fewer species and ecological interactions than it might. It is also, beyond any doubt, a product of human choice.

One lesson of ecological history is uncomfortably clear: we can survive—thrive, even—in a greatly reduced state of nature. Winnipeg and Kansas City live without the bison herds that once ran so strong their migration paths are still visible from the air; Chicago and Toronto do not weep for the days when you could fish the Great Lakes by bashing at the surface of the water with an axe handle; Vancouver and Seattle fail to remember their bays’ humpback whales. For decades, there were almost no grey wolves, grizzly bears, or eagles in the Lower Forty-Eight, and modern recovery projects have brought them back to just a fraction of their former ranges. How low can we go? A Five-Percent World? A One-Percent World? No one can say, but this much I know: the forests and the plains and the sea would still be beautiful. Haunting.

What we now call the sixth extinction is the continuation of a pattern more than 10,000 years old in North America, and far older worldwide. Nothing yet has compelled our species to make the sacrifices necessary for us to live with a more varied and abundant nature. The fact that ancient Greek texts and the founding stories of indigenous peoples warn against environmental depletion does not suggest that those alarms were premature. Rather, it hints at the scale of past ecological wealth. To spend it down has required a spree measured in millennia, at the end of which we have forgotten where we started.

I came to the tortoise to remember, but memory, like Farley Mowat’s “data,” is not a blue-chip commodity in today’s market. I find myself harrying Truett to justify the bolson tortoise project in terms that might make sense to a policy-maker with a dozen stakeholders dialing in for a conference call. Truett can do this. The bolson tortoise reintroduction can test many things in the name of science, he says. The animals’ success or failure in the northern Chihuahuan Desert may help answer vexing questions about the roles of climate change and human invasion in the disappearance of the continent’s megafauna. It should make a useful contribution to the debate about whether other species might be fruitfully introduced as proxies for vanished Pleistocene fauna, such as African lions for vanished American lions. What scales of time and space do we apply to species restoration? Should we look beyond our traditional, arbitrary baseline, scrawled at the instant Christopher Columbus sighted his New World? 7 How long does a species need to be absent before it is considered alien?

But Truett prefers to think in terms of species themselves, and from this perspective the great contribution of the bolson tortoise is its burrow. Underground access is precious to survival in the Chihuahuan Desert, and no other creature bores so great a hole as the tortoise. Their burrows plunge two metres into the earth and often extend to the length of a stretch limousine; inside, the temperature stays relatively steady through the extremes of summer wildfire and clear, cold nights beneath the picked-out winter stars. One study found 362 species making use of tortoise excavations; at Armendaris, burrowing owls 8 have already moved in, along with box turtles and at least one skunk. The mouth of the burrow—the bomb crater—may also contain nutrient-rich soil dredged up from the depths. A study of gopher tortoise burrows revealed that mounds used by tortoises for years exhibited much greater plant diversity than the surrounding area. The result is a more varied landscape, with more niches to be filled by more species. In the language of biology, this represents a net increase in species interactions, the functional fabric of nature; in other words, a slow but steady drift toward plenitude, an opposite to apocalypse.

To the west of us, a small herd of pronghorn antelope leaps in place without visible reason. On the distant Fra Cristobal Range, I’ve been told, cougars once again hunt desert bighorn sheep. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the whip snake we spotted at the road’s edge, its body sinuous as a meandering stream, and of course I have not forgotten the prehistoric tortoises. Truett’s eyes, which have been searching the sky for the aplomado falcon (reintroduced to the American Southwest after an absence of half a century), now fix on a clutch of bison filing in from the desert. There is something about that, says Truett. Why do so many of us prefer to see bison—the wildness never quite bred out of them—over cattle? Why do we dream of seeing the great, teeming beasts of Africa? Why is a passage through deep wilderness still a life-list experience for many people, while a trip to the zoo is at best a roadside attraction? “I think we have hard-wired tendencies deep within our psyches, responses we don’t know how to evaluate,” says Truett. “We assume that because they’re not measured, they don’t exist.”

But is it better, I persist. There must be one more reason, one final, overlooked truth with which I can declare that a simplified, channelized world is mere survival—that it is quantitatively and qualitatively better, smarter, richer to live with more species than less, more variety than less, more abundance than less. I have begun to irritate Truett.

“I like it,” he says.

I laugh. It isn’t said so plainly often enough.

By God, I like it, too.

Photograph of large bolson tortoise by John Walker
John Walker Large bolson tortoise.

And yet: can we live with even a tortoise? Put aside dreams of lions in Manitoba and elephants in Texas—a tortoise. From Truth or Consequences, I head south, Chihuahuan Desert all the way, to Torreón, Mexico, where more than a million people live in a dead desert lake bed. I arrive, fingers crossed for luck, hoping to see the bolson tortoise living free and wild.

The next morning is grey. This is good, says Efraín Rodríguez Téllez—a researcher with the Instituto de Ecología who pulls up in a four-by-four crew cab—because it will soften the scorching heat of the day. On the other hand, overcast skies often produce tolvaneras, dust storms common enough to have their own warning signs on the freeway north.

The sky begins to clear almost immediately. By the time we take the turnoff for the Zona del Silencio, onto a dirt road leading to an immense bottomland cradled by distant mesas, there is no patch of shade larger than those cast by the fat seed heads of yucca plants. We get lost, of course. Despite laws to protect the tortoise in what is now the Mapimí Biosphere Reserve, a local rancher has cleared a new road to push his cattle into the playa, and Rodríguez mistakes it for the rough track to the Instituto de Ecología. Everywhere I look, there are cow-pies and hoof ruts, the latter worn shin deep in places. One of the world’s most inhospitable landscapes is still slowly being conquered.

At last we pull up, finding the institute’s buildings and courtyard teeming with Mexican students on a field trip, electric with the strange excitement of the desert. Rodríguez leads me to the back, where two chicken-wire shelters house a handful of bolson tortoises. One of them wandered into town with a large hole in its shell; the flesh underneath has yellowed into a gristly callus. Bored locals sometimes throw rocks at the animals, Rodríguez explains.

Pobrecito,” he says. Poor little guy.

We drive out into the Bolsón de Mapimí, the sandy belly of a desert that was once a spreading, shallow lake. We roll at a tractor’s pace, searching the sparse brush for burrows or, with luck, a tortoise. Rodríguez knows the area, and stops regularly to inspect the telltale craters. In one, the hole is almost sixty centimetres wide, suggesting a tortoise that would comfortably fill a wheelbarrow. Most of the burrows show signs of life, such as droppings, or worn paths to utterly desiccated patches of grass. None reveals its inhabitant. This farthest reach of the bolson is the most desolate place I have ever seen; even the rocks seem to cluster together against loneliness. Still, there is something appealing about the site, a subtle lushness, like the layered horizons of a watercolour. We have at last left the cowshit and poached roads behind, and now the desert is alive with eerie noises and corner-of-the-eye movements. In the distance, somewhere, there is always a fine-bore dust devil turning.

People still eat the tortoises, says Rodríguez. “You ask people in the villages if they eat them, and they say, ‘No, no, no.’ But I was talking to a guy who was a little crazy, and he said, ‘Oh, yeah, I eat lots of them.’ As we say in Mexico, los comen de a madre.” Rough translation: they eat them like they’re going out of style.

“We’ll go a little farther,” says Rodríguez, bashing the truck directly over a creosote bush that is attempting to reclaim the fading track, “and then eat a little lunch in the shade.” He waits for my puzzled look: shade? “No,” he says with a laugh, “there isn’t any.”

But there is a tortoise. It is moving determinedly, the way tortoises do, across a gap between tufts of bush. It’s like a boulder on the landscape, though I later learn it is on the small side for an adult specimen. Rodríguez kills the engine. We step out of the truck, and I realize we are stalking the wild animal silently, like hunters. At a certain point, the tortoise suddenly snaps tight. It is unbelievably closed, vanished into itself with only its armoured forelegs exposed, and those completely hide its head. The tortoise is a fortress; it is also a jewelled box. With Rodríguez’s encouragement, I pick up the animal, bending to lift with my legs. Its weight reminds me precisely of an infant’s. Warmed by the sun, the tortoise contains the same powerful sensation of life within.

There’s not much else to witness: a tortoise is not a hunting lion, after all, or a trumpeting elephant. We go back to the truck, open a cooler, begin to make sandwiches. The weather is changing once again. On the southern horizon, a tolvanera is quickly stacking up in the sky, turning the daylight ruddy orange. I glance back to the tortoise, and it is perched again on its front legs, one cosmic eye upon us. The dust storm is sweeping toward us all, casting whirlwinds off its leading edge, dry lightning popping in its heart. In Torreón, they see the approaching tolvanera and say the rain is coming—an earthen rain. And it’s coming.

The tortoise is gone. It has picked its moment and disappeared. I wander out to where it had stood, not twenty paces from the truck, and begin to walk outward in a searcher’s spiral. The tortoise is nowhere. It seems impossible. I check the largest shrubs, the grassy islands. Gone.

Then the storm is on us. We retreat. The tortoise abides.


1 Jaded newspaper editors refer to such stories as “species of the week” pieces.

2 This estimate is of the whole-cloth variety. Lucina Hernández, a senior scientist for the institute who worked in the Mapimí Biosphere Reserve from 1984 to 2008, characterized the figure this way: “So little has been done with [the tortoises] in the wild lately that any estimate would be an unfounded guess.”

3 Anecdotal evidence suggests that very large bolson tortoises—perhaps up to a metre long—survived into the twentieth century. For example, in 1946 a Mexican mule herder told a story of waking up in the Chihuahuan Desert to find his saddle missing. He followed a set of tracks from the place where it had been, and eventually found it on the back of a tortoise. The animal had apparently taken shelter beneath it, then walked away with it stuck on its shell.

4 The older fishers’ memories are supported by historical documents and can’t be dismissed as “fish stories.” A naturalist visiting the area in 1932 described Gulf grouper “in unimaginable numbers,” at sizes that had given rise to the local fishers’ slogan “a ton an hour.”

5 Only a few years earlier, in 1918, an American naturalist stuffed two specimens that sat unnoticed in storage at the US National Museum for forty years before they were recognized by an intern as a new species. They were collected in a part of Mexico from which the tortoise has long since vanished.

6 Of the fourteen people who attended the Ladder Ranch workshop, Truett and Steve Dobrott were the only two who did not put their names to the Pleistocene rewilding proposal, preferring the role of observers. One biologist I spoke to—an admirer of the Pleistocene rewilding concept—said he often pictures the Ladder Ranch Twelve as conservation science’s version of Ken Kesey’s transgressive 1960s “magic bus,” dubbed furthur (a cross between “future” and “further”). I now imagine a bus with the word bewilding in the destination display.

7 This position may be best represented in a 1963 report that formed the basis of the modern parks philosophy in the US: “As a primary goal, we would recommend that the biotic associations within each park be maintained, or where necessary recreated, as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man. A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America.” A 1991 proposal to reintroduce bolson tortoises to Big Bend National Park in western Texas, spearheaded by Mexican biologist Gustavo Aguirre León, was rejected on these grounds. The tortoise, said the US National Park Service, had been prodigal too long.

8An endangered species in Canada; it rarely digs its own holes.

J.B. MacKinnon
J. B. MacKinnon is the author or co-author of five books of nonfiction; previous works include the bestsellers The Once and Future World and The 100-Mile Diet. He lives in Vancouver.