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

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
January 11, 2002
 
In December last year an illegal shipment of 7,500 turtles was seized in
Hong Kong. Stacked like hamburger patties, one on top of another, live
turtles were found crammed into crates, without food or water and some
still with hooks in their throats, bound for the food markets of China.
Now heroic efforts, coordinated by the Turtle Survival Alliance, are
underway to rehabilitate and relocate the animals.


This weekend the fourth shipment of turtles—approximately 2,058 animals—arrives in Miami to receive medical treatment and subsequent relocation to a breeding colony.

For the past two years the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA)—an unlikely consortium of commercial turtle breeders, conservationists, hobbyists, university researchers, zoos, aquariums, and veterinarians—have been talking with the Hong Kong government about how to channel confiscated Asian turtles into conservation programs.

"I thought we would begin this program with maybe a couple of crates of confiscated turtles, fifty or a hundred animals, that could be handled by a team of about five people," said Kurt Buhlmann of Conservation International, and the co-chair of the TSA.

"But I never expected to receive 7,500 turtles the first time we attempted these rescue efforts," said Buhlmann.

Most of these turtles come from Malaysia and at least four of the 12 species present are endangered: the black marsh turtle, the Asian brown tortoise, the Malaysian giant turtle, and the yellow-headed temple turtle. Two species are on the brink of extinction.

The goal of the TSA is to use the confiscated turtles as breeding stock to establish "assurance colonies." Each colony is a genetically diverse collection of turtles from a single species that will be bred in captivity to create "stockpiles" of the species and hopefully "assure" its survival.

Turtles May One Day "Restock" the Wild

Eventually, the "stockpiled" animals would be used to restock protected wild regions whose endemic turtle populations have been wiped out.

None of these turtles or their offspring will ever be commercially traded.

"We chose to use confiscated animals because it punishes the traders, and doesn't stimulate demand because the animals were not purchased through the markets," says Buhlmann. It also removes the burden from the government because they are not saddled with the task of finding homes for the animals.

In late December the three shipments of turtles—1,144 animals—arrived in Miami from the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong, an animal refuge where the confiscated turtles were taken after being seized.

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.

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