by Rick Hudson
Where to start and how to summarize six weeks of whirlwind activity surrounding one of the most critical turtle confiscations that the turtle community has ever been called on to handle? First and foremost we want to say thanks to all of you for your support during the past six weeks. It has been an incredibly trying time and without everyone’s support (financial, personnel, supplies, and well wishes) this entire event could have quickly become a catastrophe. We cannot stress how much we appreciate all of you. And while we are not “done” with the crisis, the situation is now manageable and under control.
For the first three weeks we received extraordinary logistical and veterinary support that allowed us to get this situation under control, certainly faster than any of us had expected. Notably the following organizations deployed staff and resources including some of the best chelonian clinicians in the zoo world: Wildlife Reserves Singapore, Ocean Park Hong Kong, Wildlife Conservation Society, Turtle Conservancy, Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, New England Aquarium and the Turtle Survival Alliance. Donations rolled in, as well as offers of vet supplies and materials. In addition, local students assisted with the many tasks required to deal with this many turtles. It became clear early on that many animals were actually in better health than we had initially feared, and would therefore be candidates for immediate release. From that point forward, our first priority was to identify those animals that could be released and separate them from those that would need treatment.
While there were inevitably some losses due to injury and neglect prior to confiscation, we are pleased to report that as of July 28, we have released over 98% of the surviving animals back into native habitat in northern Palawan. Given the high level of stress that this species experiences in captivity, we believe they have a much better chance of healing and surviving under natural conditions. Sabine reports that since late June she has had five undergraduate students from the Western Philippines University monitoring the release sites and collecting data as part of their theses research. All released animals were marked for future identification so they will be readily distinguishable from “wild” animals. We still have about 50 animals that are going to require long-term treatments and care, primarily for severe shell rot and eye infections. However, this is a very manageable number and the situation is definitely under control. People continue to ask if we need additional supplies, and we genuinely appreciate the the offer but for now we are covered.
Two weeks ago the turtles were from the wildlife rescue center in Puerto Princessa to the Katala Foundation facility in Narra. Temporary ponds were set up to care for the remaining intensive care cases. Three vet techs, including two representing TSA, handled the critical care cases for over a week until the next wave of support staff arrived. Veterinarians from Columbus Zoo and Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden took over medical duties and began systematically evaluating some very challenging eye problems. They were followed by a veterinary team from San Diego Zoo Global who continued to work through serious cases, and just recently departed after a week on site. As of 28 July, there are only 57 turtles remaining under intensive care, with 86 just being released yesterday.
There is still a lot to do, and the monitoring of release sites should continue with the goal of protecting those areas from poaching. Improving and expanding the turtle facilities at the Katala Center is also a priority, so that we are better prepared if there are confiscations in the future. For now, we are happy to have such wonderful friends who rallied around us during this crisis. We cannot thank you enough for your support, generosity and encouragement. For major financial support ($1,000 and over) the TSA wishes to acknowledge the following generous donors: Audubon Institute, Columbus Zoo, Ed Neil, Fagus Foundation, George Meyer, Houston Zoo, James Neil, Moody Gardens and Aquarium, Owen Griffiths, Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group, Sea World Emergency Fund, and the Woodland Park Zoo. There has also been a flood of online donations too numerous to list here, but suffice to say I have signed a LOT of thank you letters. Also deserving of special mention are our friends at Lafeber for shipping over a large quantity of their high quality tube feeding formula for intensive care pateints, and Wild 4 Ever for their donation of a costly mission-critical antibiotic. Our partner Zoo Med Laboratories also came through with a donation of aquatic turtle food. TSA wants to also extend special thanks to the Houston Zoo for sending Herp Keeper and turtle guru Chris Bednarski to help “hold down the fort” at the Turtle Survival Center, thereby allowing our Veterinary Care Manager Sheena Koeth to go help with the crisis in Palawan.
Throughout this entire ordeal there has been one constant – one beacon of strength – who has worked tirelessly (though we knew she was exhausted) to keep this ordeal from becoming a nightmare: Sabine Schoppe of the Katala Foundation. Teams of support staff have cycled in and out but Sabine has been front and center from Day 1. As I said before I would not wish this crisis on anyone, but if I had to pick one person that I felt could handle the pressure, it would be Sabine. Her staff deserves special mention as well: they were incredibly helpful, enthusiastically doing anything and everything asked of them, and taking care of the personal needs of all the foreign volunteers.
So on behalf of Sabine and her dedicated team in Palawan, we wish to thank everyone for their kindness and support. If there is a silver lining in this ordeal, and one take home message that has buoyed our spirit, it is this: that when a crisis erupts , the global turtle conservation community can put aside our differences and come together for a common cause. For one shining moment we united behind a single catastrophic event, and turned a tragic situation into one of hope. In all my years of dealing with various turtle crises around the world, this one inspired me like no other. It was truly a gratifying experience to see this community collectively rise up and take control of what could have easily become a disaster. In Sabine’s words: Without the generous support, immediate action, moral support, and great dedication of all of you, we would not have been able to manage this crisis. But now, I believe we can proudly say “A crisis well managed”. Congratulations and Kudos. Thank you so much.”
Be sure to join us at the conference in Tucson where a full presentation and film will be presented during the final awards banquet. See you there!