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Students get up close and personal with California desert tortoises

June 26, 2009 |  4:43 pm


Students from seven Southern California high schools have embraced a simple idea for bridging science and art to protect a species under siege: use digital cameras to document the life and times of California desert tortoises in their natural habitats.

The results are striking portraits of Gopherus agassizii -- peering out from dusty burrows, lumbering up steep ravines, cooling off their scuffed carapaces in the shade of creosote bushes -- that will be placed on exhibit in February in the Mojave National Preserve's historic Kelso Depot Desert Light Gallery.

Under the auspices of the Tortoises Through the Lens program, the students from Barstow High School, Needles High School, Desert High School, Excelsior Education Center, Victor Valley High School, Pete Knight High School, the Academy for Academic Excellence and a home-school program also developed a keen appreciation for tortoise conservation.

The California desert tortoise, whose population has fallen to an estimated 45,000 on public lands in the western Mojave, is protected under state and federal endangered species acts. But the tortoises, which can live for a century, are extremely sensitive and have complex social lives.

"I have a greater respect for tortoises now that I've seen up close how they live their lives," said Keya Cason, 16, a junior at Victor Valley High School and an aspiring photographer.

"I'll never go into the desert again with the mind I had when I started the program," she said. "I always though the desert was just heat and dirt. Now I see how beautiful its plants, creatures and landscapes really are. The colors of the sky in the day and at night, the way Joshua trees bend in the wind, the intelligence and vulnerability of tortoises -- all tell stories that give the desert character, and make you wonder."

The $27,000 program is sponsored by the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Assn. It is led by the group's California desert field representative, David Lamfrom, and a team of biologists and professional photographers.

For more information, contact Lamfrom at (760) 957-7887, or

-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: Desert tortoise. Credit: Rachel Wilson