Dear Friends, Members and Supporters,
A week ago we were alerted to the heartbreaking news that over 4,000 endangered turtles were confiscated from a well-organized syndicate of poachers in the Philippines, destined for the illegal food and pet trade markets in East Asia. Of these 4,000 animals, nearly 3,800 were Philippine Forest Turtles (Siebenrockiella leytensis), a Critically Endangered species that is endemic to the Island of Palawan. This is an extremely delicate and sensitive species that was being handled like sacks of potatoes and stored on concrete floors without food and water for a prolonged period of time in a Chinese-owned warehouse. The turtle trade is now organized by the same kind of syndicates that drive the rhinoceros, elephant, tiger and pangolin trades in Southeast Asia. Sadly, this trade continues to grow and persist regardless of the laws.
How was it possible that a rare turtle could turn up in such staggering numbers? Historically it was known from just four specimens, before being rediscovered in 2004 in Northern Palawan where it is known to have a very restricted range. The number seized in this confiscation exceeded our understanding of what the wild population might be and sent shock waves throughout the turtle conservation community. The timeline is as follows…
June 19, 2015
The Palawan Island based Katala Foundation was alerted to this massive confiscation. The Director of the Foundation’s Philippine Freshwater Turtle Conservation Program, Dr. Sabine Schoppe, and her small team were overwhelmed by the scale of the confiscation and condition of the animals. The crisis began with absolute chaos and confusion, turning to despair and sadness. They were at a loss how to move forward. Where would they move the 4,000 turtles to? How do they negotiate with the authorities in a timely manner? Where would they find the funds to purchase supplies and materials needed to care for the animals? How would they organize the manpower to manage this crisis? Where would they find much needed veterinarian assistance?
June 20, 2015
By Day 2 the global turtle conservation community, including the Turtle Conservancy (TC), Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Turtle Conservation Fund (TCF), Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group (TFTSG), Chelonian Research Foundation (CRF) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) had been appraised of the breaking news and began mobilizing. A coalition of turtle conservation groups rapidly united and began sending veterinarians and additional manpower, supplies and funds to the Philippines.
June 21, 2015
By Day 3 Schoppe and her small team had found a temporary location at the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center to manage and triage the confiscation. Working around the clock, they were able to create suitable makeshift ponds for the animals.
June 22-23, 2015
Turtle veterinarians and husbandry experts from across the turtle conservation community arrived on the Island of Palawan to provide assistance. Among them were Dr. Sonja Luz (Singapore Zoo), Dr. Paolo Martelli (Ocean Park Hong Kong) Dr. Karthi Martelli (Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden Hong Kong), Dr. Paul Gibbons (Turtle Conservancy), Dr. James Liu (Turtle Conservancy), Dr. Charles Innis (New England Aquarium) and Cris Hagen (Turtle Survival Alliance). Along with Dr. Schoppe, there was also a crew of 30 Filipino volunteers helping in every way possible to keep things organized.
They began to separate out the turtles in poor condition from the visibly healthy group. The deceased were also collected and recorded. Medical supplies and requirements were organized; for example, it was determined that approximately 15,000 syringes and 300 grams of the antibiotics would be needed to treat the approximately 1,000 ailing turtles for the next 8 weeks.
Approximately 3,500 of the 4,000 turtles were triaged with an additional 1,300 earmarked for release.
June 24-25, 2015
An additional delegation arrived from the Wildlife Conservation Society, consisting of Veterinarians, Pathologists, Field Directors, and over 400 pounds of equipment and supplies.
Some of the team hiked over 4km through mountainous forest terrain with 2 tons of turtles carried in crates, by hand and on sleds pulled by 5 water buffalo and 12 people to find release sites for an additional 500 turtles.
June 26-29, 2015
The good news is that 2,828 turtles have been released to date and after an initial peak of deaths in the first days, very few further deaths are now occurring. Approximately 505 turtles remain in poor condition and have been started on a treatment regime. They will need continued therapy for many months to come. Funds will be needed to support a rotating team of veterinarians and caregivers to manage the shell ulcerations, eye and skin problems, bone infections, dehydration, emaciation, and septicemia. Funding will also be needed to monitor the released turtles and enhance our understanding of the remaining wild population. We also need to understand how this massive illegal collection was orchestrated.
We are so grateful for the groundswell of international support from all of the passionate and dedicated citizens, organizations and conservationists. It is making all the difference. But our work is far from over. We urge you to continue your support with this ongoing crisis. The Turtle Conservancy, in coordination with several partner organizations, will continue to raise funds for the treatment, the eventual repatriation to Nature, and long-term protection of these tragic turtles.
We would like to acknowledge some of the many individuals and organizations that have given their support to this effort. Thank you to Wildlife Reserves Singapore, Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden (Hong Kong), The Center for Biological Diversity, Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians, Audubon Institute, Ocean Park Hong Kong, Los Angeles Zoo, Honolulu Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo, Moody Gardens Zoo and Aquarium, Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group, Attica Zoo (Greece), ZGAP, TRAFFIC, Turtle Conservation Fund, Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, Chelonian Research Foundation, Turtle Survival Alliance, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, and any other groups whose support we are not yet aware of.