The demand for turtles in the food markets represents possibly the single largest threat to wild Asian turtle populations and will ultimately mean extinction for many species. While this is the largest individual turtle smuggling incident to date in Hong Kong, it is estimated that perhaps twice this amount are smuggled in each month.
Early on the morning of Friday, December 28 a shipment of about 300 turtles and tortoises (sent according to conservation priority) arrived in Miami, Florida.
Being primarily involved with Manouria emys, I documented their temporary indoor holding pens where they were initially housed and received preliminary examinations (Figure 1). The animals' conditions varied and it was apparent that many had been subjected to extreme conditions long periods. Some showed evidence of past trauma, including an old tiger bite. Although the shipment was expected to include Manouria emys phayrei, only M. e. emys were present.
Figure 1. The author holding a Manouria emys.
People began to arrive in force around 9:00 AM. After a short organizational meeting we embarked upon the business of the day. First animals were cataloged and assigned identification numbers by Annabael Ross, the TSA registrar. Next they were moved to a morphometric station for weighing and measuring (Figure 2). Finally, the animals were transported to the vets and medical triage area which resembled a chelonian MASH unit (Figures 3 and 4).
After triage, the animal's physical characteristics were recorded. At this point, measurements, examination, sexing, additional assessments, blood samples for genetics and the inevitable load of paperwork began. Several universities, including Southwest Texas State University and University of Miami, will be embarking on extensive genetic work that may serve to establish baselines by which geographic localities of captive animals may be determined in the future. This is essential to determine where captive animals may be repatriated when the time is right. It will also provide guidance for captive breeding of founder stock. Drilling of the marginals was then done to provide for permanent identification of TSA animals. Processed animals were then found outdoor accommodations. The satisfaction of the initial task now completed was apparent on the faces of the participants.
Sometime during the day, the media arrived and most of us were called away for interviews, questions and comments. This was time well spent and yielded favorable newspaper and TV coverage during the next two days.
Second Shipment Arrives
Then it was time for the next trip to Miami International Airport for the second shipment of turtles. There, we had encounters with shipping agents (armed with reams of paper and incomprehensible rhetoric) and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agent (armed with Pritchard's Encyclopedia of Turtles and Ernst & Barbour's Turtles of the World) (Figure 5). It was a long and frustrating process, but apparently not uncommon in the trade.
Figure 5. A US Fish & Wildlife inspector checking the turtles.
Saturday was a repeat of the previous day with smoother operations but fewer supplies. Most of us were thoroughly sunburned. All available shade was reserved for the turtles. Thank God, it didn't rain - that would have seriously limited our options.
For me, the end of a few very long days came far too quickly. With my available time exhausted, I left for home Saturday evening, tired, but satisfied and with three large Manouria emys emys (and the smaller tiger bite victim who will be an excellent education animal) available for my behavioral studies.
My time there was comparatively short. There were those who came before me and were still there a week later. Many folks worked longer hours and at more difficult tasks. Some drove from as far as Texas, brought family members and packed equipment and tortoises even into the occupant's seats on the long drive home to save the stress (and money) of shipping animals already so strained. The owner of the property in Port St. Lucie had his family's life and business disrupted - with this to continue for a considerable time. It was amazing that so many gave such an incredible amount of time, effort, supplies and support for this project on such short notice.
To those of you who would have liked to help, but couldn't make it to Florida; there are many other critical forms of participation. Write letters to the sponsors listed on page 14 of this newsletter. Buy their products and let them know why you are doing this. We will need them again and if we make it worth their while (read that "Public Relations and Advertising" dollars), they will come through again. At least let them know that they are appreciated simply for their initial effort. We couldn't have done it without them.