"Shell Shocked - The Asian turtle crisis exploded on Hong Kong's doorstep last December when customs officials seized an illegal shipment of thousands of endangered turtles - many of them sick and injured - destined for food markets in China. Workers and volunteers toiled around the clock at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, to providing life support and finding homes for the turtles around the world. It was a massive rescue operation, with governments, international airlines and conservation groups fighting for the survival of these ancient and irreplaceable creatures."
Although this aptly sets the scene for the activities that took place in December 2001, it by no means reflects the underlying logistical complications that followed the seizure or the desperate struggle to provide basic care for over 7000 weakened and dehydrated animals. Always in the background was the depressing sight of KFBG staff disposing of hundreds of dead and dying turtles, some weighing as much as 50 kg.
Some of these events were no doubt to take place later in the States and Europe, but the story began in Southeast Asia and this account provides an overview of the undertakings, which resulted in more than 4000 turtles and tortoises leaving Hong Kong to join assurance colonies overseas.
It all began around midday on the 11th of December 2001 with a phone call from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) of the Hong Kong SAR Government. The Customs and Excise Department and the AFCD had made a larger-than-average, seizure of live turtles and wanted to know if we could assist with identification and possible holding advice. The species and actual numbers were as yet unknown. Our chelonian experts agreed that we could begin assisting with identification if the government could e-mail digital photographs. So began a mammoth task.
Large digital files and an ever expanding number of unidentified or unconfirmed species emerged as crates were inspected. Pictures continued to download until 5 pm. It began to dawn upon us that this was a significant haul and that it might contain very significant species for conservation.
Initial identifications of the digital images indicated the existence of five species, including the CITES II listed Manouria emys. Apart from the lack of legal paper work held by the river barge crew, there was now evidence that they were smuggling protected species. The haul was eventually estimated to be worth over HK $3.2 million. The four men involved in the smuggling, which was apparently destined for the South China food markets, were arrested.
Holding and Disposal Options
Knowing that protected and endangered species had been identified, we were asked if KFBG could assist in disposal decisions. After frantically examining our facilities (holding space availability, heating facilities for the tropical species, and water) and assessing our staff and volunteer availability, veterinary resources, and budgetary implications, as well as long-term placement options, we concluded that we could offer temporary placement for the shipment. If all we could do was ensure every animal was viewed and rarities fished out before probable disposal of the remainder of the stock, it would still be a worthwhile effort. All the above variables were considered before we gained approval from the Executive Director Manab Chakraborty to take on what we now coined the Asian Turtle Rescue Operation.
The decision to commence this operation also had to be cleared with the KFBG Board of Directors. Fortunately this aspect of the decision making happened quickly after due consideration had been given to funding options and assessment made of the chances of success. At the least, any commitment would result in the reallocation of manpower with several staff having to put on hold most other projects and dedicate a significant proportion of time just to the turtles. We were approved a period until 16 January 2002 to complete the rescue effort. We considered this a realistic time frame considering the limited resources we had to care for such a large number of animals.
A spate of long distance phone calls to Kurt Buhlmann, Co-Chair of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), and meetings with relevant staff at KFBG now commenced. Gary Ades also started regular communication with Mr. C.S. Cheung, the AFCD contact person. Only one week earlier we had been working closely with Kurt and Mr. Cheung concerning a previous confiscation of 38 Asian turtles and were just finalizing those CITES export permits. Basically we had gone through all of the key steps that we were now to follow, but this time on a much larger scale. The Hong Kong SAR Government had already been provided details regarding the objectives of the TSA and had approved export of the smaller consignment of CITES listed species. Since the number of TSA partners in the United States and Europe was growing, we saw a possible avenue for placement of large numbers of animals. Early investigations indicated that placement in SE Asia for now seemed impractical, and return to Malaysia although investigated was also unrealistic.
Discussion with Kurt Buhlmann now centered on the numbers that the TSA could place. We wanted to know that the animals could be placed before we opened the containers. We were to stay in close contact with Kurt until mid January 2002. October, 2002
Turtles Arrive At KFBG
We were assured by the enthusiastic voices of turtle experts Michael Lau and Bosco Chan that a container load (initially we were informed that this was the extent of the seizure!) was within our ability. Arrangements were made to deliver the animals to KFBG. E-mails were sent to all organizations that might be able to take animals for the longer term should we end up with many live specimens.
The delivery did not happen as scheduled, further phone calls began to expose the bitter truth. The shipment was larger than originally estimated and the government was still unpacking. Ten hours after first being contacted, three 24-ton trucks delivered the shipment. Even with a paid moving crew, unloading took two to three hours and wasn't completed until after midnight. The shipment weighed over four tons. Turtles were being transported in thin plywood, cardboard and polystyrene boxes and synthetic sacks and then placed in four 20-foot containers. The consignment was placed for the evening in our upper piggery building (Figure 1). Over six hundred boxes and sacks stacked almost 2 m high filled the corridor and adjacent vacant pigsties. The scene that greeted us the next morning was quite shocking.
Figure 1. Boxes of turtles filled the upper piggery building on the first morning.
As with most seizures of this type, the exact origin of the chelonians was unknown and tracing the route of the consignment practically impossible. Although the consignment appeared to originate in Malaysia, this may not necessarily have been the only collection region. We noted that many boxes still contained stickers with references to Silk Air, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines. We also removed shipper and consignee information for Singapore and Macau that was later found to be false.
Nothing could have prepared us for the task that was to follow. While most people were preparing for the Christmas festivities, we were focused on one simple objective - to save as many lives as possible. The weather was against us - temperatures had just dropped to 10oC and were about to hit the lowest temperatures of the year - and with the large logistical task at hand, time was against us. Our goal was to provide basic care and then move them to more suitable facilities in the shortest possible time! For the coordinators of the operation this was going to mean a month of tireless effort directing day-to-day events at many levels, including many dialogues with airline officials, coordination of staff and volunteers, calculating logistics for movement of large numbers of animals, taking animals to the airport, media and radio interviews and decision making about the fate of thousands of animals.
After brief inspections the first night it was clear that many of the turtles were in extremely bad shape (Figure 2). We desperately wanted to inspect all the animals and give them access to water as quickly as possible.
Figure 2. One of many Orlitia with obvious fishhooks.
Multiple stations were established for unpacking and processing the animals. Someone kept notes as each crate or box was opened. Animals were identified, as they were unpacked. Dead and dying turtles were removed from the building, while the living were moved to newly prepared enclosures. Some turtles were able to immediately enter indoor enclosures with standing water and heat to combat the night temperatures, which were to drop as low as 4oC over the next week. Occasionally unpackers gasped as another new species was discovered or when a box containing broken animals in a soup of blow fly larvae was opened. Photographic records were made of the proceedings.
We were lucky to have a competent team of around ten people who were able to stop all other work to help. These ten plus a float of 5-6 assistants took more than one and a half days to simply open, inspect and remove contents of all the crates. It was soon clear that there were more species in the consignment than first realized. By the time the last box had been emptied 12 species had been discovered, with only 1 NOT listed as endangered or vulnerable on the IUCN Red Data List (Table 1)! The seizure included even the critically endangered River Terrapin Batagur baska, an appendix I listed species. Other CITES listed species found in the seizure were the Asian brown tortoise Manouria emys, the Malayan box turtle Cuora amboinensis and the painted terrapin Callagur borneoensis.
Table 1. Turtle species found during the confiscation.
Quick counts indicated that approximately 7,500 turtles and tortoises were alive, while another 2000 were dead or dying. The latter were removed by the AFCD (Figure 3).
Most turtles were cruelly packed, stacked one upon another often 3-5 animals high. Some had been placed in sacks under piles of turtles. Others had been crushed by the weight of the boxes above them (Figure 4). The consignment certainly did not follow any humane standards for transporting live cargo.
Figure 3. After the living animals had been placed in holding areas, the AFCD removed the dead in large trucks.
Figure 4. Many boxes were overfilled and had been crushed from the weight of other boxes.
At this point the rescue operation became a serious multitasking operation. Labor was divided between unpacking the animals, finding ways to provide water and accommodations for the survivors, finding means to dispose of the dead and dying animals, and seeking assistance for care, shipping, future placement and all other aspects of the rescue effort. The TSA had promised to accept over 3,000 turtles in the States but we still had to determine the fate of those remaining. Exactly how and when the 3,000 would travel was unknown.
Morning, afternoon and evening briefing sessions became normal and it was these gatherings of key staff and volunteers that helped to ensure the whole rescue process ran smoothly over the next few weeks.
As the rescue dug into the second, third and fourth days it became evident that despite huge amounts of advice and sympathy from around the globe the scale of this rescue was going to leave us "on our own." Most of the advice and assistance offered simply were not practical on this scale.
We called on previous volunteers including students and friends and asked for assistance from staff from other departments, who helped for periods and then returned to their office work. Well into the operation we had a list of 180 volunteers including several local vets. Workers more used to caring for livestock and dealing with birds of prey were finding themselves handling hundreds of turtles.
Basic Husbandry Provisions
Establishing the most basic of holding facilities was complicated by the massive variation in size, from tiny yearling black marsh turtles to huge adult male Malaysian giant turtles. We relied mostly on old vacant pigsties and some existing animal holding enclosures (Figure 5). After the basic facilities were set, we established a daily routine.
Figure 5. From top to bottom, Siebenrockiella, and Cuora in outdoor facilities (modified pig pens).
All animals were provided water, space and some form of shelter. Heating was provided for 5,000 with modified heaters from chicken farms. The Manouria, Callagur and Batagur were started on medication since their were fewer of these individuals. All turtles with ticks were immediately treated with frontline thanks to the assistance of several volunteer vets and Nimal Fernando, the KFBG vet. Heosemys grandis, in particular, suffered high incidence of tick infestation, some measuring 2 cm in diameter!
Each day the health status of every turtle was checked, the dead removed, and the extremely sick ones marked or removed for later euthanasia (Figure 6). Most enclosures were then flooded for 30-60 minutes; those that could not be flooded had temporary pools built from plastic sheeting and scrap wood. This process was basically a full days work for two to three teams. If volunteer numbers were low, some enclosures had to skip the daily flooding but would receive it the following day. The other main outdoor task each day was a death count and disposal of the new carcasses, which once organized was a grim but routine task.
Figure 6. All turtles received daily health checks.
At this point our e-mail channels were becoming choked by well-meaning people wishing to be updated and offering assistance. We had to request only limited channels of communication from overseas. The help was greatly appreciated but we simply did not have enough ears to listen or hands to carry out the suggested tasks. Many of the suggestions that we did attempt, simply dead-ended when faced with the scale of the problem.
Some of the more notable problems are probably worth mentioning. On the veterinary side we received a lot of advice regarding treatment and preventative measures, but our calculations showed the volume of drugs required to treat this size of shipment were several times larger than the entire stock available in Hong Kong. In addition, even working non-stop 24 hours a day it would probably have taken a week just to inject all of the animals. Daily treatment with our resources was impossible, so we had to be very selective as to which species received medications. Telephone communications proved essential. In particular, one conversation with Dr. Barbara Bonner provided us with critical veterinary information for the care of some tortoises. Due to government regulations it was not possible for overseas volunteers to simply jump on a plane and come to our assistance, although we appreciated all the offers of help that we did receive.
We unpacked over one thousand Orlitia including several weighing over 50kg. This species was the most difficult to care since we had few enclosures with standing water. Staff had to construct shallow pools in open pigsties using wooden frames and plastic sheeting (Figure 7). We could not consider feeding the Orlitia at the beginning of the operation, due to the low temperatures and sheer numbers. Even at the start we realized only the healthiest animals would survive the holding period.
Figure 7. Orlitia getting a bath.
Logistic Arrangements and Transportation
Reshipment as soon as possible was our ultimate goal. This required flight crates to be constructed to IATA standards. It turned out that normal crate construction or purchase takes weeks or months and we did not know how many turtles would survive or how many would find homes. We were fortunate to find local workers who agreed to make boxes on-site, as we required them.
We were forced to order some crating before placement locations were confirmed, and before airlines were contacted, this posed further problems. Different airlines used different sized palettes. In order to maximize the usability of the crates, they needed to be compatible with both the different sized palettes and turtles, while also conforming to the IATA regulations. When boxes were presented to the air cargo handlers we assisted in securing every inch of space for the consignment! The handlers varied between being flexible or very strict about the box placement on the cargo palettes. On one occasion we had to bring several boxes back to KFBG because we ran out of space and they were refused.
The first shipment of 227 turtles left for the United States, 16 days after arriving at KFBG (Figure 8). During the operation United Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and KLM provided free cargo space, while American Airlines subsidized passage. Freight sizes ranged from 716 kg (672 turtles) to almost 6,000 kg (2,000+ turtles)!
Figure 8. Turtles being packed for the trip to Miami, Florida.
The United States received 3,222 turtles, all of which flew into Miami and were temporarily held by Alvin Weinberg at the Appalatah Flats Turtle Preserve. The TSA then distributed the animals to organizations and individuals with assurance colonies all over the States. We were encouraged to learn that 90% of the turtles in the first three shipments survived the trip to Miami.
Europe received 996 turtles. Henk Zwartepoorte and Gerard Visser at Rotterdam Zoo undertook coordination for distribution to ten countries (Austria, the Czech republic, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and UK). Clearly a massive logistical effort was undertaken in the USA and Europe. For the European consignment alone 185 boxes of varying sizes had to be constructed prior to the transportation with funding provided by Rotterdam Zoo.
Details of the placement and survival statistics are presented in Table 2.
Table 2. The following table shows the total number of live turtles unpacked at Kadoorie and their final destination. The majority were sent to the Turtle Survival Alliance in the United States (42.1%) and Europe (13.2%) while 38.6% died.
Public Relations - Press Releases and Radio Interviews
Education Manager Idy Wong coordinated this important aspect of the operation. Many are aware of the wide international coverage received. The press releases and radio interviews were able to sway airlines and local companies into giving charitable assistance and helped to develop awareness and support from the local community. In Hong Kong alone nearly all newspapers covered the story. This resulted in more than thirty articles.
KFBG launched an appeal for help for holding facilities, veterinary supplies, free flight cargo space, funds and volunteer assistance to support the conservation project. The press releases made it clear that support from the wider community was necessary for the success of the project.
It is clear that media exposure was key to raising public concern and no doubt helped us to secure free cargo space for flights to USA and Europe. Some feedback from members of the public included promises that they would not eat turtles again after learning about the plight of those being held at KFBG. Several visitors were visibly distraught and wiped tears from their eyes on witnessing the sad spectacle of thousands of helpless turtles that were originally on their way to food markets.
Although some of our carefully planned efforts went astray, we feel the undertaking was a great success. In rescuing this single confiscation, pathways to assist future confiscations were forged. Government departments, airlines, conservation organizations and the public were all brought together to work on a critical issue. In addition to the successes achieved in the development of assurance colonies and the education message regarding the suffering of individual animals, the rescue has increased the world's awareness of the plight of Asian turtles.
During this entire exercise, we were frequently impressed by the human ability to work relentlessly toward a common goal against great odds. We heard of many similar feats and great efforts in the United States and later Europe. We also witnessed the remarkable ability of individuals with no previous relevant experience, to adapt and work tirelessly toward the objectives of the rescue mission.
We would like to acknowledge the support of Mr. Andrew McAulay, the KFBG Board of Directors and the Kadoorie Foundation Trustees, who supported the decision to accept this challenge. We would also like to thank all those who assisted in this operation and sacrificed their free time to ensure that some of these wonderful creatures had the best possible chance of survival.
We received support in the form of material donations from Oxbow Hay Company, USA, Lam Soon Food Industries Ltd, HK, Jean Marie Pharmacal Company Ltd., HK, and Alfamedic Ltd., HK. Financial donations were received from Conservation International, USA and the Nando Peretti Foundation, Italy. We also received generous donations from members of the public in Hong Kong.