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Waif Gopher Tortoises

What is a Waif Tortoise?

A waif gopher tortoise is a tortoise that has been removed from the wild and is not connected to an FWC relocation permit. In most cases, it is not known where the waif tortoises came from, making it impossible to return them to their original home range. Additionally, waif tortoises may have medical issues or require human care for their survival.

Tortoises from known locations, even when living close to humans, are NOT generally considered waif tortoises.

Gopher Tortoise Illustration with text around saying

Releasable Waif Tortoises

Releasable waif tortoises are determined by the FWC to

  • Not show visible signs of illness.
  • Not need continued medical care.
  • Not require human intervention for continued survival.
  • Not have been exposed to diseased tortoises or nonnative tortoises while in captivity.

Non-releasable Waif Tortoises

The FWC decides a waif tortoise is non-releasable when it

  • Can’t successfully burrow or forage on its own.
  • Has visible signs of illness.
  • Requires ongoing medical care.
  • Requires human intervention to survive.
  • Has been exposed to diseased tortoises or nonnative tortoises while in captivity.

What happens to Waif Tortoises?

Plastic containers sitting on the ground holding marked waif tortoises ready for release.

The FWC’s goal is to return gopher tortoises to the wild whenever possible. However, if gopher tortoises are removed from the wild and cannot be returned, they may require placement in captivity.

After the FWC determines whether a waif tortoise is releasable or non-releasable, our staff finds suitable homes for the tortoises. The FWC carefully places releasable waif tortoises to protect both the welfare of the waif tortoises and the health and social structure of existing wild gopher tortoise populations. In most cases, the FWC places releasable waif tortoises in natural areas that are permitted as waif tortoise recipient sites. In some situations, the FWC places groups of waif tortoises in permitted tortoise restocking sites, which are areas of protected, managed suitable habitat where gopher tortoises populations have been severely depleted or eliminated. We also place non-releasable waif tortoises with permitted educators or wildlife facilities, such as zoos or nature centers, that can properly care for the animals for the rest of their lives.

How Can I Help Waif Tortoises?

Gopher tortoise in a bin with an identification tag painted on its shell
  • Do not move tortoises. Moving tortoises takes them away from their homes and social relationships. Tortoises also have strong rehoming instincts and will attempt to return home.
  • If you find a tortoise on the road, you may help the tortoise cross the road by placing it out of harm’s way in the same direction that it was going. DO NOT take the tortoise with you or move it to a different area. Do not put your life in danger to move the tortoise.
  • If you find a sick or injured tortoise record the location information, take a picture of the animal, and call FWC’s Waif Tortoise Coordinator during business hours at (850) 617-9671. After hours, call the FWC’s Wildlife Alert hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922). Visit our What to Do if I See a Tortoise webpage for further information.
  • Educational or wildlife facilities can apply for a Scientific Collecting Permit for Educational Possession to house non-releasable waif tortoises for educational purposes. Proof of adequate facilities and an educational plan are required for the application.
  • Private and public landowners can apply for a no-cost Waif Tortoise Recipient Site Permit to house releasable waif tortoises on your property.

Waif Recipient Sites

Sandhill habitat

A waif recipient site is a public or private natural area of 5 acres or more permitted by the FWC to accept releasable waif tortoises. Waif recipient sites must be secure tortoise environments that meet gopher tortoise habitat needs. These needs include an open tree canopy, low growing plants for tortoises to eat from, and sandy, well-drained soils for tortoises to burrow in.

Standing tortoise in a bin

By providing recipient sites for waif tortoises, you are helping give gopher tortoises a second chance at living in the wild. Waif recipient sites also help protect the health and well-being of Florida’s wild gopher tortoise populations by reducing unauthorized tortoise releases. While Waif Tortoise Recipient Site Permits don’t provide economic incentives to landowners, the requirements are less rigid than other recipient site permit types, making it easier for landowners to directly help gopher tortoises.

A waif recipient site permit allows the FWC to place releasable waif tortoises on your property. Only tortoises authorized by the FWC can be placed on your property under a Waif Tortoise Recipient Site Permit. You cannot relocate other tortoises that are not authorized to your property under this permit. Waif Tortoise Recipient Site Permits do not provide economic incentives.

Landowners interested in housing waif gopher tortoises should apply for a Scientific Collecting Permit. Applications will require information about the property, including tortoises already on the property. Full application requirements and instructions can be found in the Waif Recipient Site applications section of the Applicant Guidance: Scientific Collecting Permits for the State-listed Gopher Tortoise document.


Gopher tortoises thrive in the sandhill habitat at Bell Ridge

Waif recipient sites generally receive up to two tortoises per acre.