If you ask the Orianne Society, reptiles get a bad rep for no real reason. Maybe it's the societal stigma brought on by the Bible or Snakes on a Plane, but reptiles and amphibians are often dreaded by the general public or forgotten by mainstream conservation efforts. "I think that stems from a lot of traditional and historic fears and unknowns and uncertainties about these types of animals," says Orianne Society CEO Chris Jenkins. "Snakes certainly are the best example of that. Many, many people have a deep-seated fear of snakes, and the true danger around snakes and what they might do to you is drastically overestimated." But, the Orianne Society wants to do more than dispel fears about slithering critters, as they'll show at their SEWE exhibition.
Jenkins' organization is a Georgia-based nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of reptiles in North America and the various habitats that they dwell in. The Orianne Society's method of protection is a formula based equally on location and animal. "We focus on landscapes, really broad landscapes in North America that are really important to reptiles and amphibians," says Jenkins. Their conservation efforts have taken them to the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Northern Forests, and throughout the Southeast. "Then in the initiative, we select a series of priority species to work on and a series of priority places," he says.
Some of their specific targets for conservation within these regions include the hellbender salamander, vernal pools where amphibians breed, and the bogs of the Greater Smoky Mountains. Their Longleaf Savannas Initiative is centered around the longleaf pine trees, which are vital to the wildlife of the Southeastern Coastal Plain.
The means of protecting reptiles that the Orianne Society employs are conventional (releasing over 100 indigo snakes into their natural habitat) and surprising (promoting controlled forest fires). In the case of the latter, small forest fires, known as prescribed fire, can alter the landscape for the benefit of animals in a natural way and give plants, like the longleaf pine, a chance to regenerate and seed. "For a lot of the animals we care about, whether they be a snake or a bobwhite quail, fire is critically important," says Jenkins.
One of the Orianne Society's longest running programs, the Longleaf Savannas Initiative, affects South Carolina directly. During the project, the non-profit "focused quite a bit on gopher tortoises, indigo snakes, and other endangered species," says Jenkins. "What we do with those species is we go in and try to develop programs based on their needs." According to Jenkins, the project has seen fruitful results throughout the last decade. "We've been successful in purchasing and restoring and managing, over the last 10 years, a preserve system for the eastern indigo snake and gopher tortoise," he says.
At this year's SEWE, the Orianne Society will take almost 20 different species of reptile to Marion Square for an exhibition of, and mass education about, various cold blooded creatures. As Jenkins puts it, the collection of animals that will be present were chosen because they "represent a whole suite of species of the Southeastern Coastal Plain."
The Orianne Society wants to use the opportunity to dispel rumors about reptiles and demystify them. "The truth is that these animals — they're some of the most rare and endangered species on the planet," says the CEO. "If you look at turtles, for example, as an entire group of animals, they're the most endangered group of animals on the planet. Somewhere in the ballpark of 60 percent of all turtle species in the world are classified as endangered for extinction."
Jenkins provides the ecological argument to describe reptiles' values, comparing ecosystems to airplanes. The more pieces that are removed from the equation, the more likely the subject is to crash, burn, or refuse to lift off from the ground. "They are very important in a lot of ecosystems, in terms of being predators, in terms of being prey," he says.
Given the sensitivity of many ecosystems, Jenkins is frustrated with the way popular conservation efforts largely ignore the plight of the reptile. "Reptiles and amphibians are animals, too. And they're important, and they should be thought of on that same level as all the other animals," he says. "It's not right of us to focus more energy on one group of animals as opposed to another."