Open Letter to the Turtle Survival Alliance

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Turtles and tortoises are among the most threatened taxa on our planet. The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), since its founding in 2001, has sought to protect turtles and tortoises and their habitats – an admirable goal. We, the co-signers of this open letter, care deeply about the conservation future of the world’s turtles and tortoises. In some cases, we have dedicated our professional lives to this purpose. However, we as co-signers have deep concerns with the specific approach TSA has taken to achieve these goals. Some of the co-signers have worked closely with TSA for years. Others work within the fields of conservation and herpetology. Several have never felt welcomed to engage with TSA. In this letter, we explain our concerns and outline a vision for a more inclusive and effective TSA that is better able to ensure the survival of turtles and tortoises across the Earth and serve local communities.

Our deep concern is that TSA is complicit in perpetuating a culture of exclusion. As science, conservation, and society are moving towards a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce, all organizations must strive to create climates where all people feel welcomed and accepted regardless of gender identity, race, age, ethnicity, religion, ability, national origin, immigrant status, or sexual orientation. The issues we describe in this letter have been widely known in the herpetology and conservation communities over many years. Many signers of this letter knew this and now admit that we did not take action at the time. We unreservedly regret and apologize for our previous inaction.

International Culture of Exclusion

TSA’s problematic culture jeopardizes the effectiveness of its international conservation programs. Much of TSA’s international conservation work is based on a legacy of colonialism and extraction of knowledge, data, and specimens from the Global South to wealthy nations – issues that have long been recognized as problematic in international conservation research. This approach to conservation negatively affects biologists who are women and/or members of other marginalized groups in the Global South where TSA is actively engaged with turtle conservation. TSA lags behind other institutions; major conservation organizations, including the IUCN, WWF, Conservation International, and the Nature Conservancy, have identified the participation of women and Indigenous and local communities as vital for successful ecosystem and wildlife conservation (see e.g., IUCN publications on women and girls and Indigenous Peoples). TSA’s unwelcoming environment ultimately hinders turtle conservation efforts.

Culture of Hostility Towards Women at Conferences 

TSA has actively perpetuated a climate of hostility towards women, including at its annual conferences. For example, TSA has chosen to provide international speaking platforms for problematic scientists such as Dick Vogt (as reported internationally: NY Times, BuzzFeed, Independent, and Chronicle). This year they included this individual in their symposia as a presenter. After TSA received negative attention on social media for this choice, they released an open letter on 8/10/2020 stating that they removed “an individual not affiliated with TSA” from the 2020 program, and disinvited them from all future symposia. In addition, they released a joint statement of inclusion co-signed by TSA’s symposium partner TFTSG (the IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group). TFTSG also detailed that “a speaker who has a history of inappropriate conference language and behavior… is no longer a member of the TFTSG Steering Committee or a Regional Vice Chair” in an open letter on their webpage on 08/12/2020. These were great steps in a positive direction. Yet, both the initial choice to provide such a platform and, importantly, the subsequent allowance of this individual to participate in a Q&A session at the symposium on 8/13/2020 shows that (1) TSA did not take the impacts of this individual seriously, and (2) they have not followed through with implementing their own responsive actions

Misogynistic culture at conferences jeopardizes TSA’s core mission of promoting global conservation of turtles and tortoises; this culture has driven numerous women from herpetology. While this has negatively impacted women of all races, it bears noting that the people most impacted by this problematic culture are women of color, who face the intersectional effects of racism and sexism (also see: The Urgency of Intersectionality). It is not only unjust to exclude women and other marginalized groups, but research shows that a lack of diversity diminishes a fields’ ability to produce innovative science (see e.g., The Diversity–Innovation Paradox in Science). 

Positive Change is the Responsibility of TSA’s Leadership

The current leadership of TSA (Board, Officers, and Staff) is 30% women (up from 15% one year ago), and is 100% white/white presenting. In 14 years of Behler Turtle Conservation Awards (coined by the TSA as the ‘The “Nobel Prize” of Turtle Conservation’), 12 (86%) have been awarded to white/white presenting men, including those known to exhibit problematic behavior. These numbers demonstrate to us undeniable bias within TSA and underscore the negative impact on women turtle biologists caused by the continuance of providing platforms to problematic men.

Actions for TSA

We call upon TSA to adopt an inclusive and equitable culture that fully embraces and celebrates the diversity of people in herpetology now, and for generations to come. We list below concrete actions that would improve TSA’s problematic culture. Importantly, TSA should be transparent (clear communication with the community) and accountable (clear timelines/benchmarks for progress) in undertaking actions. 

  1. Mandate that all TSA leaders undergo cultural competency training focused on gender minorities, racialized minorities, international partners, and fieldwork safety. Expert trainers should be hired (and compensated) and should include members of marginalized groups.

  2. Form a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) committee with the power to enact change and hold membership accountable. The DEIJ chair should hold a seat on the Board of Directors with full voting power. Ideally multiple BOD members should be fully engaged participants in the DEIJ.

  3. Strengthen the Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct. Appoint an external Adherence/Enforcement Committee and/or ombudsperson to enforce the Codes.

  4. Allocate funding specifically for international women of color for turtle research and/or conference travel (even if they are not affiliated with TSA US or its regional offices).

  5. Recruit diverse representatives (i.e., people of color) to TSA leadership structure, as a mandatory responsibility of the Board of Directors. 

  6. Limit terms of Directors on the Board to allow space and support for new ideas and diversity.

  7. Acknowledge and counteract the racist and colonialist historical legacy in turtle conservation practiced by TSA and partners. In particular:
    • Publicly acknowledge exploitative and extractive relationships with international communities.
    • Undertake timely actions that support local scientists’ and communities’ visions to allow them to guide their own community-based turtle science and conservation programs (i.e., capacity and skill building, supporting but not leading scientific publications, etc).
    • TSA’s role should be to serve local scientists in their own skill-building, not to perform “parachute science,” or take credit for local scientists’ and communities’ knowledge.
  1. Take accountability for the actions of TSA’s regional and international office leadership and monitor closely for any form of misconduct to ensure that local leadership is not reinforcing colonialist conservation. Evaluate international partnerships, particularly TSA India, specifically with regard to their roles in perpetuating negative climates for local marginalized turtle researchers.

  2. Remove any individual who is banned from TSA symposia from TSA leadership roles. Call on partners to remove the same problematic individuals from leadership roles. Their presence in these roles create power dynamics and optics that negate sincere efforts to improve the climate.

  3. Release a statement that:
    • Acknowledges and apologizes for being complicit in the impacts of TSA affiliates in misogyny on women of color, white women, and LGBTQ+ herpetologists; and
    • Lays out TSA’s action plan and timeline for improving the climate for minoritized and marginalized herpetologists.

This is not about one individual: there are multiple problematic TSA affiliates who contribute to a negative climate for women of color, white women, and other marginalized people.

Inclusive Herpetology: Here for change

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