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High school students chronicle the lives of desert tortoises in new book.

September 4, 2010 |  5:14 pm

Tortoise Armed with digital cameras, 13 Southern California high school students ignored the discomfort of temperatures hovering above 100 degrees, lying on their stomachs in the dirt and cactus spines to document the behavior and habitat needs of desert tortoises.

"It was all about perspective, illumination and snapping the shutter at the right moment to get that ultimate shot," recalled Keya Cason, 17, a senior at Victor Valley High School and an aspiring photographer. "The shot that says, 'Tortoises -- elders of the desert -- and the land in which they live are important.' "

The payoff is in the photographs by Keya and others assembled in the handsome new book, "Tortoises Through the Lens: A Visual Exploration of a Mojave Desert Icon," from Sunbelt Publications of San Diego.

The book is a product of a $27,000 program sponsored by the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Assn.

These are portraits of survival in extreme conditions. Evidence of picnicking on annual fruits and flowers is worn on a tortoise's face like red and green lipstick. A massive tortoise, nicknamed General Sherman, lumbers toward a dusty burrow that provides a safe haven for it and many other species. Another radiates charisma as it strides across a sandy ravine.

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

They also face a host of threats: coyotes, ravens, invasive plants, respiratory disease and habitat loss.

Tortoises were not the only creatures the students photographed during the 18 months they spent in the Mojave. They also were captivated with the unexpected: a horned lizard feasting on harvester ants, a coyote prowling through sagebrush, brightly colored flowers exploding from the arid landscape.

Through it all, 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 -- developed a keen appreciation for the art of wildlife photography and the science of tortoise conservation.

"The kids took thousands of pictures, so choosing photos to put in the book was the toughest part of the whole experience," said Rana Knighten, co-editor of the book and interpretive ranger at Mojave National Preserve.

"The final cut came down to quality, angles and uniqueness," Keya said. "Now, I want to take my photography to a professional level. I want to go into wildlife photography."

 -- Louis Sahagun

Photo: Portrait of a desert tortoise on the cover of the new book, "Tortoises Through the Lens: A Visual Exploration of a Mojave Desert Icon." Credit: Marcus Estevane/Sunbelt Publicati

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