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Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, 2000, 6:12-14
© 2000 by Chelonian Research Foundation

Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter

Turtle Rescue - Turtle Survival Alliance Executive Summary

Rick Hudson1and Kurt Buhlmann2
1Fort Worth Zoo, 1989 Colonial Parkway, Fort Worth, TX 76110;
Phone: 817-759-7177; E-mail: iguanhudso@aol.com
2Conservation International, 1919 M Street, Suite 600, Washington, DC;
Phone 202-912-1352 and 803-725-5293; E-mail: k.buhlmann@conservation.org

With the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) not even a year old and still struggling to establish its international network, the young organization was handed a daunting responsibility. On December 11 Hong Kong authorities seized a shipment of 10,000 Asian turtles heading for markets in China. Most likely Malaysian in origin, the shipment contained 12 species, many of them classified as threatened or endangered. The enormous task of unpacking the shipment fell on Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden (KFBG) Wild Animal Rescue Center in Hong Kong, a TSA partner organization. Despite overwhelming numbers of sick and injured turtles their staff handled the crisis as effectively as could be expected until arrangements could be made to transport them. Rather than destroy the shipment, the turtles were offered to the TSA. For an excellent summary of the events leading up to the turtles coming to the U.S., see the extensive article by Gary Ades and Paul Crow. For cochairs Kurt Buhlmann and Rick Hudson, life was turned completely upside down. Over the next two chaotic and frenetic weeks the complications and logistics of bringing these turtles to the US were dealt with. On 27 December 2001 the first shipment of 300 turtles arrived. By 12 January 2002 four shipments totaling 3,200 animals had been received in Miami through airfreight space donated by United, Cathay Pacific, and American Airlines. The turtles were moved to Al Weinberg's Allapattah Flats Turtle Preserve in Port St. Lucie, Florida, which served as the staging area for evaluation and treatment. Such a massive rescue effort would not have been possible without this facility. The TSA owes a great deal to both Al and Jacquie Weinberg who opened their home and facilities to allow this process to occur. For their perseverance, dedication and genuine hospitality shown to hundreds of strangers and visitors during this tumultuous period, the TSA extends its gratitude.

Such a sustained effort presented an enormous logistical challenge and required a large and dedicated volunteer force. Every turtle that was processed received a permanent shell-notched individual ID number and was measured, weighed, and sexed. Three sets of paperwork for each animal included biological attributes, veterinary treatment data, and disposition to TSA Partners necessitated extensive record keeping (see Chris Tabaka's summary). The organization and maintenance of this process fell on the shoulders of TSA records keeper Annabel Ross of the Fort Worth Zoo who performed a remarkable job of bringing some system of order to a potentially chaotic situation. This process was accomplished with a host of volunteers representing the private sector and over 20 zoos, universities, and non-profit conservation organizations. Important contributions from nearly 20 corporate donors and organizations helped make it all possible. Over 30 of the best zoo, wildlife, and private veterinarians in the U.S. were on hand to attend to a multitude of medical problems. In fact the enormous outpouring of donor support, in terms of donated time, funds, services and supplies, was remarkable (see the following tables).

Where they went
All totaled, 3,202 turtles and tortoises were processed during the Florida rescue effort. They were distributed in the following manner:

    49 private individuals & organizations received 1,397
    11 zoos received 325
    3 veterinarians received 154
    1 Vet School received 38
    2 tropical fish farms received 641

Another 996 turtles were consigned to the Rotterdam Zoo and distributed throughout the European zoo community, an event coordinated by Gerard Visser and Henk Zwartepoorte.

Overall mortality figures for the U.S. rescue effort have not been disappointing given the extremely poor and debilitated condition in which many of the turtles arrived. In particular, the last shipment consisting primarily of Cuora amboinensis and Siebenrockiella crassicollis were severely compromised and many stood little chance for survival. As of 14 August 2002, eight months post rescue, mortality stands at 44% (1,408 deaths out of 3,209 turtles processed) according to the ongoing database maintained by Annabel Ross - TSA Records Keeper. However if these two species are not factored into the analysis, then overall mortality figures drop to 25%, which is remarkable.

In addition to monitoring the 12 species seized during the Hong Kong confiscation the TSA is tracking four other species that KFBG sent along with the last shipment. These include Cuora galbinifrons (3), Indotestudo elongata (20), Lissemys punctata (8), and Morenia petersi (3). For some of the 16 species being tracked, the results are predictable while others are pleasantly surprising. The Cuora and Siebenrockiella suffered 54% and 56% mortality, which is not surprising, nor is 86% for the exceedingly difficult to maintain snail-eating turtle Malayemys subtrijuga. Disappointing is the 44% mortality for the mountain tortoises Manouria emys which arrived, for the most part, in what appeared to be fairly good condition. However closer assessments, revealed a myriad of problems on the inside including severe parasitism from a highly invasive hookworm as well as starvation. In fact the specimens that did survive required a massive and dedicated veterinary effort and a huge time commitment on behalf of those involved. In the words of TSA vet Chris Tabaka "we haven't had a battle like that here in a long time". A pleasant surprise is the 3% mortality seen in the yellow-headed temple turtles Hieremys annandalii (1 out of 40) and the 33% for the Malayan flat-shelled turtle Notochelys platynota (11 out of 33) which has a reputation as a problematic captive. Equally impressive is the low mortality on the two species of Heosemys: 21% for H. spinosa (40 out of 191) most of which were large adults that generally acclimate poorly, and 12% for H. grandis (42 out of 355) which were certainly one of the hardier species that we dealt with. Our success with the giant Bornean river turtle Orlitia borneensis is one of which we are quite proud. Though many of these giants, some over 50 kg, succumbed before they could be shipped from Hong Kong, the Florida rescue team processed 260. Besides arriving extremely dehydrated and with enormous parasite burdens, almost all had hooks caught in their mouths or esophagus and required surgery. The husbandry challenges that this species presented were formidable due to their large size, aggressive nature and debilitated condition. But thanks to the tremendous dedication of a team of veterinarians (Dr. Chriss Miller of Miami Metrozoo deserves special commendation as she and her staff accepted over 50 Orlitia at the Zoo hospital and lost only two animals; most are still under her care) only 89 have perished for a mortality rate of 34%. It must be pointed out that an enormous amount of time and resources, both financial and human, have gone into trying to save these turtles.

Individuals and institutions both have absorbed huge costs in terms of drugs, personnel overtime, lab work and diagnostics, vet bills and shipping charges. During the rescue many of the medical expenses were covered through donations from several humane organizations (HSUS, WSPA, IFAW) channeled through Barb Bonner's Turtle Hospital of New England. But once the turtles went home many individuals bore the personal burden of paying for veterinary care. To this group of dedicated turtle keepers we owe a special debt of gratitude.

While tracking mortality figures is necessary in order to document our efforts and maintain accountability, one of the more pleasant tasks is tracking hatchlings. Lots of eggs were laid during and subsequent to the rescue effort, and TSA communications manager Darrell Senneke reports the following hatching success:

    37 Heosemys grandis and 1 H. spinosa
    7 Hieremys annandalii
    2 Indotestudo elongata
    1 Malayemys subtrijuga**
    2 Siebenrockiella crassicollis*
    Orlitia borneensis (at KFBG )
    * The first hatchling born from the overall confiscation was a Siebenrockiella that hatched at KFBG.
    ** The first U.S. hatching was a Malayemys on 11 April 2002 from eggs laid on New Years Eve 2001 at Shawn Learmont's facility in Illinois. Shawn's emerged only one hour prior to a H. grandis at Paul vander Schouw's.

All total, 50 hatchlings had emerged by 6 August 2002. These turtles are alive today because of TSA and KFBG rescue efforts.

Many specimens from the Hong Kong rescue are being integrated into existing TSA programs known as Taxon Management Groups (TMG). One of the more important acquisitions was the five mangrove terrapins Batagur baska, which were incorporated into a captive gene pool with very low genetic diversity, i.e. most specimens were descended from one female. These new animals have integrated into captive groups at Bronx NY, Cleveland Metroparks and San Diego. The receipt of these five Batagur is significant for other reasons as well. Listed as CITES I and Endangered by USFWS, the process of obtaining import and export permits for such specimens could normally take up to a year. The TSA received an import permit on an emergency basis in five days, heralded by many as an extraordinary achievement. However a number of events had occurred previously that paved the way for this permit. In 2001 a remnant population of Batagur was discovered by biologists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) along the Sre Ambel River in Cambodia where they were believed extinct. Funding requests went out to develop a community based nest beach protection program that resulted in support from Cleveland Metroparks, Disney's Wildlife Conservation Fund and Conservation International CABS, all TSA Partner institutions. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo had also compiled a studbook and written a management plan for Batagur. All of this was factored in to FWS's decision to issue an import permit.

The lone male painted terrapin Callagur borneoensis was sent to a facility holding four captive hatched females approaching adult size and is now part of a TMG program for that species. For other taxa TMGs were organized in response to the confiscation. One of the more active of these has been Heosemys spinosa under the coordination of Chris Tabaka, DVM. His extensive communications concerning the medical management of this species have no doubt resulted in the surprising low mortality being seen.

When the TSA was established we envisioned that more manageable numbers would be seized, probably not exceeding 500 specimens, and these would be distributed throughout our network of veterinarians for initial triage and treatment, and eventual placement after they were stabilized. This is how the system is supposed to work. The 11 December seizure in Hong Kong shattered that illusion and brought the harsh realities of the massive volume of the Asian turtle trade into our personal lives. The TSA was dealt a very bad hand but had no choice but to play it. Though the KFBG staff exerted heroic efforts to save these turtles, limited space, winter weather and time worked against them. Clearly many of the turtles that were shipped to the U.S. should have been euthanized in Hong Kong, as they never stood a chance. However given the circumstances the TSA did the best it possibly could under such conditions. We simply ran out of facilities to house and care for so many sick and dying turtles and compromises had to be made. With the last group of Cuora and Siebenrockiella, the decision often came down to who had a warm water pond to put them in. Extensive medical intervention was simply not an option. However we are confidant we did as well as we could. There have been numerous discussions as to how to deal with a similar situation the next time and most of the TSA steering committee is in agreement that we should send triage teams to deal with the confiscation initially in the range country, and only ship back the specimens needed to develop assurance colonies for threatened species. It must be pointed out that the TSA's primary mission is conservation. The confiscations and market rescues are a means to achieving our broader goal of saving endangered turtle species through the development of sustainable captive populations. This is reflected in the TSA's definition as An IUCN Partnership Network for Sustainable Captive Management of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises and in our primary goal of Preserving Options for the Recovery of Wild Populations. TSA is not a rescue organization, and we do not intend to replicate the efforts of existing rescue groups. We will likely find ourselves working with these groups in the future as confiscations become more prevalent.

The impact of this single rescue event towards bonding the TSA partners and their support network, and establishing the organization's reputation as a successful conservation group, cannot be understated. During the process huge debts were incurred, but much of this has been offset by direct contributions and grants from Conservation International ($9000), Disney's Wildlife Conservation Fund ($5000), and the Columbus Zoo ($3000). Thousands more in contributions were made by a wide range of private hobbyists and turtle enthusiasts. All in all, the Hong Kong turtle rescue brought together the turtle community for a unified cause, and a spirit of purpose and unity truly prevailed. And though chaos seemed evident at times, and mistakes were certainly made along the way, a process emerged that we can all be proud of. For those of us that endured this ordeal in its entirety, it is an experience that will remain with us for the rest of our lives.