WABASSO — Authorities are investigating the remains of 13 gopher tortoises found adjacent to the Wabasso Scrub Conservation Area on County Road 510 on Tuesday.
Officials were called to the scene Tuesday evening after an environmental land consultant found the shells on a quarter-acre vacant lot next to the preserve. Gopher tortoises are a state protected species and are often relocated to conservation sites for protection when development threatens their habitat.
“To see collectively 200 years of tortoise life disappear because of probably a few individuals — its made me sick,” said conservation lands manager Beth Powell. “I’ve been sick since last night.” Powell’s initial examination of the shells shows that each of the 13 tortoises were adults, many of which had reached the age to reproduce.
“It’s really devastating,” Powell said of the loss of reproductive tortoises to the population.
Powell also said many of the shells look like they are from recent kills — within the last six months.
The tortoises’ shells show signs of blunt force trauma, where someone hit the shells with something akin to a hammer, according to Powell. It is also possible that a gun may have been used.
It is not possible that other animals killed the tortoises, Powell said.
Of the 13 slain tortoises, Powell is familiar with at least one — an adult female. The gopher tortoise had a severely cracked shell that healed, leaving a scar, the conservationist said.
Powell had been the one to identify the tortoise on the conservation land when the county relocated a dozen others to the area.
“They’re so resilient,” Powell said.
Both Powell and Ilka Daniel, of the Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County, believe this to be the largest known case of gopher tortoise poaching in the county.
“We are so disheartened,” Daniel said, noting that the loss of tortoises is a “significant blow” to the population.
Powell and Daniel also believe that the tortoises were killed for their meat. Powell said no heads, feet, arms or legs were found, only the completely empty shells.
“It’s almost impossible” to kill the tortoises humanely for food, Daniel said. “They suffered.”
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has been called into the case and will determine whether or not it should open an investigation.
If an official investigation is launched, the Humane Society expects to work with FWC to offer a reward for information leading to the discovery of the person or people involved in killing the protected gopher tortoises.
Anyone with information is asked to call the FWC hotline, (888) 404-3922.