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Last updated January 1, 2014

Peter Pritchard: Hero of the Planet

Hero to turtles now "Hero for the Planet" as Time bestows the honor on an Oviedo zoologist who has spent his life studying and protecting tortoises

Gwyneth K. Shaw, Orlando Sentinel, February 21, 2000


OVIEDO - In an old yellow house shaded by mammoth oak trees, Peter Pritchard has turned a boyhood fascination into international renown.

The house, built in 1886, may look like many of the others lining south Central Avenue. The buildings, and the land, have an Old Florida feel, homesteads planted in the sandy soil and surrounded by scrub.

But inside, the world is on display. The turtle and tortoise artifacts he has amassed inside - and the conservationist urgency that's built up along with them - has earned Pritchard a spot on an elite list of environmental gatekeepers.

In an issue hitting newsstands this week, Time magazine proclaims Pritchard is one of its "Heroes for the Planet," an ongoing list that has included Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for his work preserving freshwater environments. This week's installment is the seventh, and includes an American working to preserve elephants in Kenya and a Russian ex- hunter trying to save Siberian tigers.

Pritchard, 56, is founder and head of the privately funded Chelonian Research Institute, the culmination of what has become a life's work in the study of sea turtles . He has traveled from Florida's Suwannee River to Guyana to Vietnam, collecting specimens and art and gathering knowledge.

"I'm always getting interesting visitors," he said. "We'll get people who go to the Smithsonian [Institution) and say, `What have you got from central Thailand?' And they'll say, `You'd better go to Oviedo for that.'"

Pritchard is pleased by the national recognition the Time feature will bring, but he barely pauses to discuss it.

Of much greater interest to him is his latest projects, the biggest of which is the Chelonian Institute, named for the biological classification that includes turtles and tortoises.

Thanks to private backers, the institute now owns two houses and acres of scrub land, marked with gopher-tortoise burrows.

Pritchard imagines a place where his collections can reach a wider audience.

"We're trying to make a thing that not only academics can enjoy, but schoolchildren can come and see it," he said.

Valencia Community College students are clearing paths through the brush, creating the kind of quiet thinking place once favored by philosophers and students centuries ago.

There is a new area that's home to two giant African spurred tortoises, which range in the wild from Senegal to Sudan.

Inside, the house is filled to the eaves with an astounding turtle collection - examples of all 90 genera and 264 of 290 species. A specimen of the 265th species should arrive this week.

The largest snapping-turtle shell in the world hangs on a wall in the front of the house. Suspended from the ceiling in another room is the carefully wired skeleton of a green turtle from Guyana.

Everywhere, there are shells, skulls and jars of turtle hatchlings preserved in alcohol.

Competing with them for a visitor's attention is a collection of art depicting turtles and tortoises, from primitive tribal etchings to 18th-century French field-guide illustrations and prints by American artists.

Pritchard spends weeks each year traveling, concentrating on less- developed countries where turtles are threatened by hungry people, not beach drivers or fishermen. Guyana, where he is trying to create a turtle sanctuary, has been a priority for several years, although he also spends time in southeast Asia.

An Oxford-educated Briton, Pritchard decided to switch from chemistry to zoology after striking up a correspondence with the late Archie Carr, the legendary University of Florida zoologist.

After earning a doctorate in zoology in Gainesville, Pritchard found himself in Maitland working with the Florida Audubon Society.

He and his wife, Sibille, made their home in Oviedo and have never left.

An active participant in the effort to protect Florida's sea turtles, Pritchard thinks the cause is in good hands here. That allows him to focus on other parts of the world, where laws and treaties often don't translate into safety for turtles.

"People are the problem, and people are the solution," he said.

"The U.S. method - passing laws - doesn't transfer very well to impoverished Third World counties. At the ground level, you'll find people who not only aren't following these mandates, but who haven't even heard of them."

But Peter Pritchard has, and he's watching.

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