SCA Member Sarika Khanwilkar feels inspired after making a Gopher Tortoise’s day
I was picking up trash the other day on the West edge of Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge, where old pizza boxes, beer cans, plastic bags and other miscellaneous, unidentifiable objects are scattered across the landscape. Most of this litter is cast from cars zipping by on US Highway 1. As the Florida sun continued beaming, I got an eerie gut feeling that I was being watched, like something had snuck up on me. Looking around I discovered that just a few feet away a hardy but harmless gopher tortoise lurked quietly.
As I stood gaping at what has recently become one of my favorite animals, it stared back, evaluating my threat potential. It had soon had enough of me and started to move on, but as it attempted to depart something terrible happened…
My delight at being surprised by a sneaking gopher tortoise was immediately ruined by what I saw; a piece of trash sat in its path, blocking its way.
Although it was only a piece of styrofoam, this apparent disregard for the sanctity of the Refuge really irritated me. It took hardly any effort to swoop in like a superhero and pick up the scrap, so that the innocent herbivore could continue to his burrow, where he withdrew underground.
This moment, however brief, left a big impression on me. During the first month of my Student Conservation Association (SCA) internship, I’ve quickly become aware that collecting trash is a non-stop duty. The litter isn’t only evident along the Highway; marine debris ceaselessly collect along the 3.5 miles of pristine beach where the waves carry it to shore. Last week while I was searching for invasive plants in the largely unexplored coastal hammock habitat, I found this conspicuous balloon.
Like the gopher tortoise who was momentarily stymied by roadside litter in his path, the numerous sea turtles who will soon seek nesting sites on our Refuge beach will be navigating through garbage.
Environmental pollution is ubiquitous. It is a global problem, and just keeping the relatively small Refuge trash-free is a daunting task. However, in that one small moment of playing hero to the gopher tortoise, I instantly saw the positive impact that a single act by a single concerned citizen can have. It is with insights like this that my SCA internship sustains and strenghtens my passion for conservation. As a gopher tortoise would almost certainly say, “gopher” your dreams!
Styrofoam monster photo by Anna Ngyuen.
Help students like Sarika protect parks today and emerge as nature’s stewards for tomorrow.