Building a Rapid Response Network for Confiscated Turtles
November 6, 2023
Devising a Plan of Hope for North American Turtles with AZA SAFE Program
By David Collins, Director of Animal Management and North American Programs
Dealing with confiscations of illegally trafficked turtles goes to the very root of Turtle Survival Alliance. In late December 2001, less than a year after the Alliance was formed, we were put to the test when over 3,000 turtles confiscated in Hong Kong were shipped to the United States. Turtle Survival Alliance choreographed its first army of first responders, a feat that would be repeated often over the following two decades, from Palawan to Madagascar–where the Alliance is now mounting the largest repatriation effort ever attempted for over 20,000 Radiated Tortoises.
As the illegal trade decimated the wild stocks of Asia, it spread globally and it is now significantly impacting North American native turtles. The AZA SAFE: American Turtle Program, established at Turtle Survival Alliance in 2021, addresses this threat by assisting federal and state wildlife agency law enforcement officers in protecting native turtles and in developing procedures to return confiscated turtles to the wild.
To meet this goal, the American Turtle SAFE is developing a national Rapid Response Network to move confiscated turtles quickly from law enforcement agents to dedicated care facilities with the goal of putting them on a sound path to the best conservation outcome, ideally release.
Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited zoos and aquariums and certified facilities have the staff and potential resources to provide these services, but need to be expanded beyond current levels to meet the demand. A pilot project, funded through an AZA SAFE grant and coordinated by Turtle Survival Alliance, has expanded capacity for confiscated turtles at seven collaborating institutions: New England Aquarium, Zoo New England, Roger Williams Park Zoo, Staten Island Zoo, Zoo Knoxville, Bristol County Agricultural High School, and Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center. These were specifically selected to expand capacity for the large number of confiscations at JFK International Airport. This diversity of partners provides the full range of capacity needed to carry turtles from the critical initial quarantine period through long-term holding. Our next step is to expand this network nationally.
This grant also provides funding for research on Ranavirus at the University of Illinois’ Wildlife Epidemiology Lab. The lab is presently monitoring this disease in Ranavirus positive confiscated turtles from these collaborating partners. Funding for a broader range of disease screening including herpesvirus, adenovirus, and mycoplasma, in addition to Ranavirus, is provided by a Competitive State Wildlife Grant (CSWG). Findings from these screenings has led to a long-term monitoring project of these pathogens with the aim of better understanding their etiology and emphasizes the need to document the prevalence of these pathogens in free-ranging turtle populations. This is an important step in successfully rewilding confiscated turtles without risk to our native populations.
The CSWG also provides funding for genetic analysis of confiscated turtles, the final step in getting these turtles home. We are in the final stages of analyzing this information on several groups of confiscated turtles and identifying recipient states and release sites. We will report on these efforts in a future post.
The AZA SAFE: American Turtle Program ensures a future for turtles unjustly removed from their home. Turtle Survival Alliance is dedicated to the care of these turtles and more. Read more about Turtle Survival Alliance and the AZA SAFE program here.
Pictured: Confiscated Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) in route to a dedicated care facility, photo courtesy of New England Aquarium.
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