Look closely in the desert foothills a few miles northwest of Las Vegas, and you might see shades of color dotting the cloudless landscape of cactus and mounds of dirt with mountains to the west.
On a Saturday morning in April, a few miles from the nearest road, deflated Mylar balloons stuck to plants can be mistaken for colorful flowers.
Christian Daniels, 15, is hiking with his dad, Bill Daniels. Their 4-year-old English Labrador named Ruby runs after a lizard. She doesn’t catch it.
“There,” he says.
He takes off and comes back a minute later with a red balloon, formerly pinned to the thorn of a cactus. “Happy Birthday” is printed on its side.
A few minutes later, a similarly bright object appears. This time, it’s a red flower.
“That doesn’t look much different than the first balloon we picked up,” Bill Daniels remarks.
A year and a half ago, Christian learned that desert tortoises often mistake balloons for flowers and eat them. It’s a potentially deadly mistake for the species found in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts and listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
“It will get inside their intestines and kill them,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The number of balloons dotting the landscape don’t help the tortoise odds, so Christian started the Desert Balloon Project and hikes almost every weekend with his dad or his 18-year-old brother, Hayden Daniels.
Bill Daniels said his older son loved hiking since he was young, but Christian never wanted to hike.
“And then literally a year and a half ago, he read about the tortoises, and he’s like, ‘Dad, let’s go get balloons,’” the father said.
Christian Daniels routinely posts about his adventures on his Facebook page, where he connected with other charities and foundations that help advocate for desert tortoises.
Sarah Mortimer is the executive director of The Tortoise Group, a nonprofit that advocates for the well-being and protection of the species. Mortimer said Christian’s work is an area that most people don’t know much about.
“Desert tortoises can see color,” Mortimer said. “And they’re really attracted to bright pinks, bright yellows, bright oranges — those same colors that they’re seeing of desert wildflowers. So sometimes they go after painted toenails or a crinkled-up balloon.”
Christian and his dad find all sorts of items in the desert: air conditioners, beer cans, smashed television sets, even a fully intact refrigerator.
They sometimes spend three or four hours hiking, but one thing is for sure every time they go out: They will find balloons. They have a collection at home, along with a table filled with deer antlers and tortoise shells.
Christian is a student at Somerset Academy’s Sky Pointe campus. He spends Sunday mornings in the Fire Explorer Program, a step toward his dream of becoming a firefighter.
He called the Desert Balloon Project an opportunity to blend hiking and nature, and to give back.
“The first time I found a balloon, I picked it up because I never knew what it did,” he said. “When we brought it home, we did some research, and we found that tortoises will eat them.”
The goal of the Desert Balloon Project is to raise awareness about the issue and urge people not to release Mylar balloons into the air — something most people don’t think twice about.
For now, Christian has no plans to stop hiking on Saturday mornings, picking up stray balloons from the desert and protecting tortoise lives in the process.
“It feels good,” he said. “It feels really good.”