The Orianne Society works to conserve imperiled reptiles and amphibians using science, applied conservation and education.
Reptiles and amphibians have an incredible value. They are an integral part of our ecosystems, playing their part in keeping these systems functioning. Their physiology holds many clues to important medical advances. Their mystique has played important roles in our arts and culture. Reptiles and amphibians are key players in the world we live in.
In a world of diminishing habitats, they suffer from the same effects of environmental degradation as other animals, but with the added burden of being targets – targets of persecution, of antipathy. They don’t get the same attention as cuter animals we are asked to save, yet healthy ecosystems depend on these animals too. Reptiles and amphibians are often the bellwethers of habitat health. To see these species in the wild is to see a healthy, functioning landscape.
The Orianne Society started as a request from a young girl to her father over 12 years ago. Dr. Thomas Kaplan and his daughter, Orianne, were visiting a zoo where Orianne had the opportunity to hold an Eastern Indigo Snake. She asked her father if she could have one as a pet, but he had to tell her that it was not possible as it was an endangered species. Upon hearing that, she made a very selfless request; she asked her father if he could save the indigo snake. Dr. Kaplan contacted Dr. Chris Jenkins, then with Wildlife Conservation Society, and together they decided to start an effort to conserve indigo snakes. Soon after that decision, a broad group of partners were brought together to develop a strategy and Project Orianne was founded with Dr. Jenkins as Chief Executive Officer and Dr. Kaplan as Chairman of the Board.
Project Orianne developed a comprehensive strategy for conserving Eastern Indigo Snakes. First, a series of properties were purchased in South Georgia as a stronghold for the species. These properties became the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve and still stand today, also as a stronghold for the rare Longleaf Pine ecosystem. Second, Project Orianne built a state-of-the-art breeding center in Florida called the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation. The facility is still run today as a partnership between the Orianne Society and Central Florida Zoo and is producing indigo snakes that are being reintroduced to the wild in Alabama and Florida. Finally, Project Orianne launched range-wide research, inventory, and monitoring efforts that increased their knowledge of Eastern Indigo Snake ecology and status significantly.
At the request of Dr. Kaplan, Project Orianne began the transition from a private operating foundation to a public charity and became The Orianne Society in 2013. This was a significant move for a nonprofit, moving from receiving the majority of its funding from one donor to receiving its funding more broadly from the “public.” As part of the transition, The Orianne Society expanded its board from approximately 3 to 10 people and launched a membership program. Perhaps the most significant changes came from focusing the indigo snake programs to specific projects and creating new programs for additional species and in additional areas. The Orianne Society had moved from a single species conservation organization to a rare reptile and amphibian conservation organization. While staff remained active in multiple areas, this transition focused The Orianne Society’s indigo snake efforts to land conservation, management, and monitoring populations across South Georgia.
The Orianne Society expanded its work on indigo snakes into a broader Longleaf Savannas Initiative and launched new efforts, an Appalachian Highlands Initiative. The expanded Longleaf Savannas Initiative included conservation projects focused on other rare snakes, a large Gopher Tortoise conservation effort, and projects to conserve freshwater turtles. The Appalachian Highlands Initiative focused on Timber Rattlesnake conservation in the Southern Appalachians and a project to restore habitat for Hellbenders.
In addition to the transition to a public charity, The Orianne Society launched an initiative for the conservation of Great Northern Forests. This initiative focuses on the region where the boreal forests of the north and the hardwood forests of the south come together. In this region there is an interesting group of reptiles and amphibians adapted to living in cold climates. Here, The Orianne Society’s efforts are focused on the conservation of Wood Turtles and Blanding’s Turtles. Additional efforts include the development of a private landowner network and riparian habitat restoration work.
In 2021, after meeting the IRS requirements, The Orianne Society was officially granted public charity status. Though Dr. Kaplan no longer sits on the board, we have added new and energetic board members who are enthusiastic about The Orianne Society’s mission and who will support and help guide the organization. With increased and continued support from the public (donations, additional people interested in serving on the board, corporate sponsors, and an increasing membership), The Orianne Society will continue fulfilling its mission, as a public charity dedicated to the conservation of rare reptiles, amphibians, and the ecosystems they depend on.
In 2022, The Orianne Society is transitioning its program structure into Science, Conservation Action, and Communication Initiatives. The Science Initiative is being formed in partnership with Virginia Tech University and includes an expanding portfolio of research projects and a developing list of granting programs. The Conservation Action Initiative is focused on place based conservation in our priority landscapes. The Communication Initiative focuses on the strategic use of communications for the conservation of reptiles and amphibians. There are some new exciting transitions with the Indigo Snake Preserve transitioning to the Longleaf Stewardship Center, the development of freshwater turtle conservation projects in the Hudson-Berkshire highland region of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, and a focus on conserving tortoises in the Seychelles Archipelago.