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For tortoise, terrapin and turtle care and conservation

Turtles of Yugoslavia

Peter Bennett

The following observations are based on studies made during a total period of Four weeks spent in the district around the head of Kotor Fiord in the Republic of Montenegro, in Southern Yugoslavia. The studies consisted of two weeks in mid-June, 1969 and the last two weeks in June, 1971.

Hermann's Tortoise, Testudo hermanni, is by Far the most common of the three species of chelonians found. Its distribution is widespread and although the density of numbers naturally varies according to the suitability of the habitat, it can be regarded as being common.

Specimens were found ranging from sea level in gardens on the outskirts of the town to 1,000 feet and up on the mountain sides. They were, however, most numerous in the small terraced meadows which have been carved out of the sides of the mountains over a great period of time. These meadows are very small and an average size is about forty yards long by fifteen yards wide, with stone walls and hedges of pomegranate bushes and brambles separating them. The pasture is kept short-cropped by the sheep and goats using the meadows.

The largest number of tortoises observed in any one period was 93, between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., on a bright cloudless day, with a temperature of about 85°F. According to the tourist board, the number of days per year with cloudless, sunny skies in this area averages 113. On the one wet, dull day I experienced there, I only found one tortoise in the open, in a rather muddy condition, and a few burrowed under the thick brambles, in a torpid state.

Of the 200 or so specimens examined, I did not find any suffering from ticks, which seems to be fairly common on specimens of the Spur-thighed Tortoise, Testudo qraeca, imported into England From North Africa. The largest specimen Found was a male with a carapace measuring 8 inches in length, although a Fair number were over 8 inches in length.

Though I found no nests of eggs, the proportion of young specimens seen showed a satisfactory breeding rate, although several situations have arisen in the past few years which may have an adverse effect in the long run; but I hope that any pessimism I may have is due to my intense concern about conservation.

The only enemies seem to be human and their effect appears to be minimal at present. There appears to be collecting on a small scale by Foreign visitors, who take the odd specimen home but the local population appears to be quite indifferent towards all species of reptiles and there does not appear to be any collecting by them for dealers.

At present there are two main causes of death. The first is due to drowning, where the tortoises have fallen down the steep banks of the mountain streams into the pools which have been created in places at the base of man-made stone weirs, erected to control the spate of water coming down these streams in the winter months. Although during the times I was there the flow was reduced to a trickle in places, some of these pools were up to three feet deep, with a drop of up to ten feet From the top of the weir. The second main cause of death is due to their being killed crossing the roads.

From a body count I made, these two causes of death account for approximately 90% of the fatalities. Unfortunately, due to the ever increasing volume of traffic, it would appear that fatalities caused by traffic will soon account by far for the biggest percentage of deaths. In Fact, I counted six dead Testudo hermanni and one European Pond Tortoise, Emys orbicularis on a mile-long stretch of the Adriatic highway which was built recently in this area and which should reach the Albanian border next year. No dead Caspian Terrapins, Clemmys caspica rivuleta were found, so their mortality, as well as that of Emys orbicularis, can at present only be a matter of conjecture.

Due to the large and rapid growth in tourism, many of the local inhabitants have given up the struggle to earn a living from agriculture and as a result many of the small meadows described above are being left to revert to dense tangles of pomegranate bushes and other natural growths. Whilst Testudo hermanni is widespread, no one knows with any certainty the population density in the distant past before the construction of these meadows which appear to Produce the optimum conditions for it. I feel that should the abandoning of these meadows become really marked it may have some effect on the numbers of this species. To sum up, I feel that although the position of Testudo hermanni is at present satisfactory, there is a possibility of a decline in numbers in the fairly near future.

The European Pond Tortoise, Emys orbicularis, and the Caspian Terrapin, Clemmys caspica rivuleta, were both found in a small stream Flowing over the coastal Plain, between the mountain range and the sea. One morning I Found twelve of the former and two of the latter.

The Emys orbicularis varied in length of carapace from inches to 6 inches. All of the specimens examined had very pronounced and more yellow markings than the ones sold in pet shops in England, which usually come from Italy. In fact, in the adults, the yellow markings on the head had merged so that there was no trace of black left at all. The carapaces of two had been badly damaged in the past, but had healed satisfactorily.

The two Clemmys caspica rivuleta, which is the subspecies found in Southeastern Europe, had unrelieved black plastrons and bridges, and a more simple Pattern on the face then is found in either the Caspian Terrapin, Clemmys caspica caspica, or the Spanish Terrapin, Clemmys leprosa. The two specimens, which were males, each had a carapace length of approximately 4 ½ inches, although the maximum for this species is 6 inches.

All of the turtles just described were Found in a stretch of stream about a quarter of a mile long. The bed of this stream was for most of its length either solid rock or covered with large pebbles or shingle, with practically no weed and a little algae. No fish and very few beetles or water snails were observed. All of the turtles but one were found in the sections of the stream which were shaded from the sun by overhanging trees, bushes and thick clumps of brambles which hung down to the surface of the water.

Where the stream ran between cultivated fields, the water deepened to about 2 ½ Feet with a muddy bottom and a fair amount of weed. A large number of Frogs were found here as well as a number of small fish which appeared to be a type of minnow, and several newts. Although most of the frog tadpoles had left the water by the middle of June, presumably they provide a source of food for the turtles during the spring.

As the area around the stream is arid, with little scenic attraction, I did not observe any tourists around on any of the times I passed. As far as I could ascertain the terrapins are unaffected by collecting.

Reprinted by kind permission of the author, from the now dissolved International Turtle and Tortoise Journal, vol. 6-no 2 pages 15 & 34

Testudo Volume One 1978