Coast KZN

23 May 2023

World Turtle Day: Significance, history and fun facts

(South Coast Sun) Picture: Stock image: Turtles and tortoises are an important part of our planet, surviving in a variety of environments across the world.

Every year on May 23, American Tortoise Rescue (ATR), a non-profit organisation, observes World Turtle Day. This event is intended to raise awareness about the need to maintain turtles and tortoises and their increasingly disappearing habitats. These reptiles are an important part of our planet, surviving in a variety of environments across the world. This year’s World Turtle Day theme is ‘I Love Turtles,’ emphasising the critical need to conserve these species and their future in the face of dwindling habitats.


In 2000, World Turtle Day was established after ten years of unwavering dedication by Susan Tellem and her husband, Marshall Thompson. They took the lead in creating this noble cause, organising fundraising events and tirelessly raising awareness about the challenges faced by these remarkable shelled creatures. This year is the 23rd edition of International World Turtle Day, and it stands as a symbol of hope for the numerous turtles and tortoises that have discovered solace and preservation through the compassionate efforts of ATR.


World Turtle Day is a significant day that calls for action initiated by the global community. It is a day when humanity unites to pay tribute to the existence of these magnificent creatures and takes proper action to conserve them. Turtles are sold by street vendors and pet stores. This results in the exploitation of these captivating beings. However, thanks to the awareness created on World Turtle Day, a ray of hope emerges. Several rescues and sanctuaries have emerged, offering a brighter future for these beloved creatures.

Lesser-known facts about tortoises and turtles:

Tortoises are ancient

Tortoises have been around for over 200 million years – longer than lizards, birds, mammals, crocodiles and snakes.

They have a long lifespan

Some turtles and tortoises can live to over 100 years old – and beyond! One such tortoise was Harriet, who is said to have originally been found and looked after by Charles Darwin from 1835 and later arrived at Australia Zoo. She died there in 2006 and was believed to have been 175 at the time.

Turtles can live in almost any environment

Turtles can live in most climates that are warm enough for them to breed. They live on all continents except Antarctica.

Turtle shells are complex

A turtle shell contains 60 interconnected bones.

A group of tortoises is called a ‘creep’

However, most tortoises are loners who prefer their own company.

The scales on a tortoise shell are known as ‘scutes’

The scales on the outer shell of a tortoise are made of the same keratin as human fingernails. This protects against injury, damage and infection.

The colour of the shell indicates their origin

A lighter shell indicates that a tortoise originally came from a warmer country. The lightest known shade means that the tortoise originates from the southern part of the Sahara Desert.

Tortoises can hold their breath for a long time

Tortoises empty their lungs before going back into their shell and can last for some time without coming out for oxygen. If they sense a threat, they can often be heard exhaling in preparation for going into their shell.

Tortoises smell with their throats

As is common with reptiles in general, tortoises use the roof of their mouth to smell. This is where their vomeronasal organ (otherwise known as the Jacobson’s Organ) is located.