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Turtle hunting is illegal, even if it brings you into contact with missing bodies.
According to official accounts, the unidentified man who last week found the remains of Chandra Levy in Rock Creek Park was out hunting for box turtles with his dog. The media have been pursuing the man to flesh out just what he saw on that leafy hillside.
The National Park Service, though, wants to speak with the man for a different reason: Box turtles retail for eight bucks at pet stores, and it is against the law to take them from the wild. “If turtles are in the picture for real, there’s a good likelihood it was illegal,” says Bob Ford, natural resources manager with the National Park Service in Rock Creek Park, of the activities that led to the discovery of Levy. “We’re going to let the press die down a little bit and then pursue that with him.
“Maybe he just likes to watch turtles like other people watch birds or flowers—though that’s a bit of a stretch,” Ford says. “We just don’t know for sure what he was really doing.”
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Sgt. Scott Fear, a spokesperson for the U.S. Park Police, declined to elaborate on whether the man who found Levy was a biologist or had a legitimate reason to be searching for turtles. “He was out walking his dog looking for turtles,” says Fear. “He told us that.”
The box turtle is the only woods-living turtle to be found in Rock Creek Park, according to the National Park Service. Unique among turtles, it has a flanged shell that allows it to retract completely into its protective carapace. Clear woods and wood edges, such as those near fields, streams, and roads, are its preferred habitat.
And humans tend to prefer the creature, for its gentle ways and largely herbivorous diet. According to Henry Hill Collins Jr.’s Complete Field Guide to North American Wildlife (1957 edition), the box turtle is “the first turtle seen by every child, the one turtle known to every adult, and probably the longest-lived species of American wildlife.”
The sluggish creatures move at a rate of just dozens of feet per hour, and some never leave an area the size of a football field in their entire lives. (They can live up to 138 years.) Though they can’t run, box turtles can hide: Their shells blend in seamlessly with the sylvan ecology. Hiding was a good defense against gigantic reptilian predators back in the Miocene era, but it makes the turtles easy pickings for human collectors.
Collectors’ dogs, however, are not a natural predator. “I have no idea if people use dogs to sniff turtles,” says Lt. Richard Pope of the U.S. Park Police. “I haven’t heard anything about it.”
But dogs may not need any special training to pick up turtle scents. The box turtle excretes a defensive odor when threatened, though Ford says he hasn’t smelled it often among the park’s population. “We’ve not experienced that so much,” he says. “They will urinate at times.”
Box turtles and their relatives tend to avoid cities in favor of the rich, deciduous woods and wetlands of the East Coast. “Turtle populations are a lot richer outside the Beltway,” notes Ford. “Really, it’s not worth looking in Rock Creek Park. It’s too hard to find them.”
Last year, the Natural Resources Division of the National Park Service in Rock Creek tried. It found just 27 of the critters in an area of the park stretching north from the Pinehurst Valley area to the Maryland border. “And most of those were males,” laments Ford. Despite the fact that female turtles can lay fertile eggs up to four years after last mating, that gender gap doesn’t bode well for the future of the urban turtle population.
“We’re concerned about them,” says Ford. “They might be extirpated before too long because they are slow and vulnerable. They are vulnerable to collecting, and we think there’s been a fair amount of that over the years. They are also vulnerable to traffic, because once they get out on the road, they’re slow.” CP