Meet the Conservation Program Manager: Paula Kahn, Desert Tortoise Conservation Center

Paula Kahn, Conservation Program Manager at San Diego Zoo Global's Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Copyright Sandiego Zoo Global.

Describe your job: I manage the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas, Nev.  My job is multi-faceted and includes everything from hands-on activities related to the care of captive desert tortoises to conducting scientific research that will aid in the recovery of this threatened species. We currently have nearly 3,000 desert tortoises at the DTCC and we receive over 1,000 new desert tortoises each year.  Each one has to be accessioned into the facility, health assessed, and placed in an appropriate enclosure. Our goal is to rehabilitate these animals and release them to the wild where they can contribute to wild populations and aid in the recovery of the species.

How long have you been in the position?  Two and half years – since Feb 2009.

What in your background helped you get the job? I did my PhD work at Auburn University on a closely related species, the gopher tortoise, which is found in the southeastern U.S.  After graduating, I moved to Nevada to work with desert tortoises, and held various positions from field researcher all the way up to senior scientist and manager of field operations.  In one of the positions I held, I spent three months living in my truck in the desert radiotracking desert tortoises and learning everything about them in their natural habitat.  Nothing could have prepared me better for my current position with San Diego Zoo Global than those three months of intensive field work in which I had a chance to intimately observe these cryptic animals and their daily activities.

What’s your favorite thing about your job?  My favorite thing about my job is translocating desert tortoises back to protected areas of the desert where they can thrive.  San Diego Zoo Global is the only organization authorized by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to release captive desert tortoises to the desert since it’s such a risky endeavor.  Pet desert tortoises have the potential to carry diseases that could decimate wild populations that have never been exposed to those pathogens before.  Here at the DTCC, every tortoise undergoes an extensive health assessment when they arrive, during their stay, and prior to leaving the facility, and those tortoises that are not certifiably healthy must undergo treatment and/or rehabilitation before they are cleared for release.  Once they are released into the wild, we conduct on the ground field research so we can ultimately determine the best way to release tortoises, the best habitat to release them in, and the best way to ensure that they are healthy and successful in their new environment.  There is nothing more rewarding to me than returning an individual to the wild knowing that I am helping to recover a threatened species.

Describe a favorite memory/experience in your current position: In May 2011, we released nearly 200 healthy desert tortoises into a protected area in the Mojave Desert, and 36 of them were fitted with VHF radiotransmitters so we could track their movements.  We released them into beautiful desert habitat that was covered with wildflowers and cacti, all blooming from the recent winter rains.  There was one tortoise that I released near a beavertail cactus that had several brilliant magenta flowers on the pads.  The tortoise headed straight for the flowers and spent the next ten minutes devouring the flowers and pads of the cactus before seeking shade under a Mojave yucca.  I was unable to stop myself from watching the tortoise feasting on this native forage because despite spending years in captivity and being fed primarily tortoise chow, this tortoise knew exactly what to do from the minute we released him.  It was a beautiful moment, watching a desert tortoise return to its home in the desert where it belongs, and it gave me hope that some day maybe we really will save this species from extinction.

Do you have a favorite animal? Why is it your favorite?  I don’t have one favorite animal because they are all so diverse and unique that I don’t think I could ever pick just one, but I certainly have a special fondness for tortoises, particularly those in the genus Gopherus.  Gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) were my first love because I spent six years working with them, including about 100 hours per week during the active season.  I became so accustomed to their smell that I actually missed it in the off season!  Tortoises are amazing creatures that have changed very little in the millions of years that they have been on Earth.  They are primarily vegetarian, they don’t bite, they’re not aggressive toward people, and their shells are incredible anatomical features that would seem mythical to people who have never seen them … what’s not to love about a tortoise?!

Tim Lewthwaite

This entry was posted in Conservation, Profiles, San Diego Zoo Global, Tortoise, Wildlife. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Meet the Conservation Program Manager: Paula Kahn, Desert Tortoise Conservation Center

  1. Robin Torpey says:

    Dr. Paula,
    What a nice job you have. You have wonderful patients that never complain.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. siscily says:

    i would like to visit the center and observe the wonderful work that you do. are there volunteer positions? siscily

  3. Jen Soto says:

    hi Paula, I’m Jennifer and I am trying to do community service ,my parents cleaned your house once and they told me about the tortoise, I would like to volunteer for this so if you can please get back at me cause I’m real interested, thank you

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