Turtles Smuggled to China as Food Find Haven in U.S.

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From Miami the animals were taken to the Allapattah Flats Turtle Preserve, in Port St. Lucie, Florida, a private commercial turtle breeding facility run by Alvin and Jacquie Weinberg who volunteered their warehouses and ponds for the rehabilitation efforts.

Fred Antonio, general curator of the Central Florida Zoological Park in Lake Monroe (a member of the TSA), and a team of employees volunteered to help clean, treat, and place the turtles.

"All the animals were suffering from something," said Antonio. "Most turtles were dehydrated, some were malnourished, others had bacterial infections, and some still had fish hooks lodged in their throat or mouth."

These animals were treated as meat commodities with little attention paid to their health or to humane shipping, said Antonio. The signs of severe trauma were obvious.

Animals stacked at the bottom of the crates were completely crushed from the weight of the other turtles. Others had cracked shells. The patterns on shells were worn from rubbing against other animals. Many turtles were missing claws and had head injuries from trying to dig their way out of the crates.

Turtles Are Tough to Treat

Aquatic tropical turtles are one of the most difficult groups of animals to evaluate, says Antonio. "When you try to handle them they withdraw into their shells which makes it very difficult to get a good look at their heads, remove hooks, or take blood samples."

And, aquatic tropical turtle medicine is not exactly a significant field, said Antonio.

Once at the Allapattah rehab center, a turtle task force descended upon the animals. Antonio assigned triage numbers to each turtle. "The number one signaled a turtle in good shape, five was essentially dead."

"Turtle runners" then carried each turtle through a string of stations where it was weighed, measured, and tagged. Other stations manned with vets administered antibiotic shots and first aid and took blood samples for future genetic analyses.

Animals were then placed in tanks with food and water. Fit animals were shipped to zoos and private breeders. All the 1,144 turtles have already been placed.

The TSA hopes to eventually reestablish turtle populations in Asia, but until wilderness areas are protected there is little sense in trying to restock these areas.

"These turtles will just end up back on the dinner table," said Buhlmann.

In China turtles of every variety are considered a gourmet delicacy, an ancient folk remedy for many ailments including cancer, and an aphrodisiac. And, when turtle is consumed at a wedding for example, the marriage is ensured longevity.

China's turtles are some of the most endangered in the world. So voracious is China's appetite for turtle that it has all but eradicated its own turtle population before turning to the export market.

Most turtles brought into China are from Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, and Cambodia.

Turtles are especially vulnerable to extinction. The animals have a high mortality at a young age and take up to 20 years to reach sexual maturity. Killing adults for meat therefore takes a huge toll on the species.

The efforts of the TSA have been supported by a U.S. $70,000 grant from the Nando Pereti Foundation of Italy. Disney provided assistance from its emergency conservation fund. United Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and American Airlines all provided free cargo space to bring the turtles from Hong Kong.

National Geographic Today, 7 p.m. ET/PT in the United States, is a daily news magazine available only on the National Geographic Channel. Click here to request it.

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