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Fifty Yellow-Headed Temple Turtles have arrived in Florida to begin a new life after being rescued from an illegal wildlife shipment in Hong Kong. Had the turtles been successfully smuggled into China, they would have been killed to satisfy the large demand for turtle meat and turtle parts used in Chinese medicine.

 An endangered species, the Yellow-Headed Temple Turtle gets its name from the tradition of releasing the species into Buddhist temple ponds. One of the largest aquatic turtles in Southeast Asia, Yellow-Headed Temple Turtles can reach two feet in length.

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It is not known where the turtles were originally captured by poachers. Because of concerns about genetics and disease transfer, they could not be released into another habitat. Hong Kong’s Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden provided temporary housing, but no permanent facilities were available. The turtles were stranded with no place to go. It was then that the TSA went into action, determined to find a home for the endangered turtles. An appeal to TSA members quickly raised funds for a turtle airlift to the USA, and facilities to house the turtles were located in Florida.

“It doesn’t sound like much of a challenge to house fifty turtles, but you have to remember that this species can reach two feet long and weigh more than 35 pounds,” said Rick Hudson, TSA President. “They need large outdoor ponds with clean water and warm temperatures year-round.”

Transporting the turtles over 8,000 miles threatened to be cost-prohibitive, but at the final hour, Taiwan-based EVA airlines generously offered to move the animals at a discounted fare. The turtles were boxed in 20 temperature-controlled containers and loaded onto a cargo jet. Upon arrival at Atlanta International Airport, the turtles were met by Cris Hagen, Director of Animal Management for the Turtle Survival Alliance. 

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The turtles were transported to the Jacksonville Zoo, where they were unpacked and assessed after their long trip. This proved to be a long night for Cris and the Jacksonville Zoo staff who volunteered to give him a hand (Dino Ferri, Brian Eisele and Steve Gott).

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They got started at around 10:00 PM and worked for five hours straight, weighing, measuring, notching and checking for PIT tags in each turtle. Cris was able to check into a hotel at 4:00 AM for just a few hours of sleep before hitting the road again for south Florida.

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Later that morning, the turtles were released into their new home, an immense pond on private property.  The turtles will form the core of a breeding colony to help assure the species’ survival.

“We should start seeing some reproduction in the next year or two, after they have acclimated and settled into their new south Florida home,” Hagen said.

Thanks to the generosity of its members and EVA Airlines, the TSA has created a Turtle Rescue Fund for similar emergencies in the future. “If we want to save these amazing creatures, we have to be able to move fast,” Hudson said.

The TSA would like to thank everyone who donated funds to make this effort possible. The TSA membership really stepped up in response to this need and large gifts from the Columbus Zoo and the BC Johnson Family put us over the top. We would also like to acknowledge Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong for the excellent care that they gave the confiscated turtles and for their tireless work to negotiate many of the details of their transport. Thanks also to the Taipei Zoo who helped to negotiate the fantastic sponsorship from EVA Airlines. Special thanks also go out to the Jacksonville Zoo, Bill Ninesling, Kenan Harkin and Zoo Atlanta for their assistance with processing these turtles once they arrived.