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Turtles in Trouble: Documenting the Conservation of the Eastern Box Turtle

As the turtle’s tiny nose tentatively poked out from his shell, I slowly adjusted my camera to bring the colorful head into focus. I was mere inches from his face, and had been lying motionless on the wet ground anxiously anticipating his emergence for several minutes now.

One small, round eye opened up and gave me a quick once-over before the cautious little reptile fully emerged and surveyed the surrounding area with what is thought to be among the best vision of any North Carolina turtle. Vibrant red, yellow, and orange hues adorned the scales around his face and forelimbs. I had only one concern in the world: capturing this moment on video while it lasted.

And then, without so much as a second glance, he scooted out of frame and into the thick underbrush beside me.

As I watched his teeny little tail disappear into the weeds, I grinned widely, and when I stood up and turned around saw that the biologists behind me were doing the same.

“Did you get the shot?” they asked “Yes”, I replied, grinning even wider, “yes I did.”

Eastern box turtles are among the most recognizable reptiles in North Carolina, and most people have seen one in the wild or at the very least know someone who has. Often seen slowly making their way through backyards, hiding in the leaf litter of a woodland, or attempting to cross the road, NC’s state reptile can be found from the blue ridge mountains to the coastal plain. But just because they are here now doesn’t mean they are here to stay, and in fact, most research suggests that this species is in serious trouble.

After learning about the grim reality of the challenges facing wild box turtle populations, I decided to undertake the filming, editing, and distribution of a documentary film on the conservation of this species.

The goal of the film is to educate viewers about the challenges facing this species and the steps that they can take to make a positive difference for their continued survival in the wild. The process began by researching the natural history and management policy of the species, information which was pieced together into a storyboard that has served as the guidebook for the project. Along the way, I began contacting key people and organizations who are working with the species, and have met and filmed segments with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, the NC State Parks Department, and NCSU Turtle Team. These varying perspectives will be combined with segments about the natural history of the box turtles to create a final product that tells a complete story about these unique and charismatic reptiles.

Upon completion, the full film will be publicly available free of charge by anyone with an internet compatible device to maximize the potential reach and impact that it can have on the policy and individual decisions that will shape the future of wild Eastern box turtles.

The production process of this film has already taught me a great deal about what it takes to plan and create a professional-quality film. Whether it’s coordinating field filming dates, figuring out the right verbiage for the script, or trying to capture the perfect visual, this has been a far longer and more labor-intensive journey than I ever would have imagined.

This is also a species with limited research findings, complicated conservation policy politics, and an extremely cryptic lifestyle. That means nailing down information, interviewees, and locating the turtles themselves have all been more challenging than they originally appeared. With that in mind, I am excited to (hopefully) be wrapping up the project this year, and have made some fantastic professional connections along the way.

Overall, this experience has helped me realize that I love telling the stories of researchers and conservationists through video, a style of content creation that I’d never really gotten experience with until I began working on this film. It is incredibly gratifying for me to be able to show off the work that is being done to conserve these animals by so many different people, and I am so excited to see the kind of impact the final product might have on the public perception of Eastern box turtles and wildlife conservation as a field.