African Chelonian Institute: Saving African turtle, tortoise and terrapin species

Tomas is making an impeccable impact and leaving a legacy behind for future generations to come by creating the African Chelonian Institute.

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The continent of Africa is known for its impressive mammals and other species of wildlife. Yet, international conservation efforts are not always well understood by local communities. Growing up as a young boy in the city of Dakar, Senegal, Tomas Diagne belonged to such a community. Nevertheless, he grew up with a different perspective on wildlife in comparison to his surroundings. His unexpected love for turtles, tortoises and terrapins led him to not only become a well-known conservationist, but also a mentor for future generations who care for nature just as he does.

This story is more than just a conservation story – it’s about making an impeccable impact and leaving a legacy behind for future generations to come.

Tomas’ passion for everything alive started early. It was his curiosity that led him to dissect a lizard at an early age-just to take a look at its intestines-and his love for anything fluffy that led him to hide chicks from his father at home. Growing up in the bustling city of Dakar, in an environment where people worked hard to survive, it was uncommon to show such an interest in animals. In the household where he grew up, it was his father, especially who didn’t approve of his animal caretaking. Especially not when he kept them hidden in his room, as he did with his chicks.

Although his curiosity about the animal kingdom was not fixated on a specific species, his profound love for turtles, tortoises and terrapins – who live respectively in the sea, on land and in freshwater habitats – started in his own backyard when an African Helmeted Turtle had chosen to stay there during the three-month rainy season. Soon after, Tomas gathered as much information as possible about  the Chelonian species.  In the years that followed, he took advantage of every opportunity to be in the presence of turtles and tortoises, from following specific classes during his agronomy studies to joining a manatee expedition in Mali. In order to become a conservationist against all odds, he had to get creative. So that’s what he did.

A few years later when Tomas was working as an intern at the Atlanta Zoo in Georgia, the puzzle pieces started to fall into place. It is here that his love for turtles, tortoises and terrapins started to evolve into something bigger. When working under the supervision of Dr. Brad Lock at the Atlanta Zoo, he was offered a stable career opportunity. But Dr. Brad Lock thought differently. Founding an organization in Africa with US-based fundraising could propel Tomas’ career forward while making an impact on endemic African Chelonian species. It took a while to decide between a stable or rather adventurous future, but eventually he decided to plunge into the unknown to found his own organization.

Now, 30 years after starting his Chelonian journey, Tomas’ work ranges from housing individuals saved from pet trafficking and the bushmeat market to researching and protecting species in multiple West-African countries – hence, the name African Chelonian Institute. Although his roots are in Senegal and some of his earliest projects are carried out there, the scope of his work is much bigger than this sole country. These days, Tomas is working with multiple team members in numerous countries across the continent to protect the endemic Chelonian species.

Read more about Tomas’ and Awa’s work in Issue 4!

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