Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Philippines Turtle Crisis: In His Own Words

Aquarium head veterinarian Charles Innis, VMD, spent two weeks in the summer of 2015 working with a coalition of conservation groups to treat thousands of critically endangered Palawan forest turtles. The turtles had been intercepted from a poacher's warehouse and many were gravely ill. Innis will be speaking about the experience on Thursday, October 29 as part of the Aquarium's free lecture series.

Here is a snippet from his journal detailing a release of some healthier rescued turtles.

By the afternoon of June 29, we had categorized another four hundred twenty eight turtles as suitable for release. Sabine [Dr. Sabine Schoppe of the Katala Foundation coordinated all rescue efforts] had sent some of her students on reconnaissance for the previous two days to identify good release habitat. After evaluating and treating seven hundred something turtles over eight hours, we left the rehab center by van at approximately 3 p.m. on the 29th. Two locations were selected, and we divided into two groups, with approximately two hundred turtles to be released at each site.

A healthy Palawan forest turtle

We drove to the north for about an hour to reach the known range of the species. We unloaded at a village and the crates filled with turtles were loaded onto sleds drawn by water buffalo. The buffalo were led by the local men, one man per animal, using a series of different clicks and grunts, each having a different meaning (start, stop, slow, turn, etc.). The sleds are incredibly effective, much better than wheels at navigating that variable terrain, going over stumps, etc. It is a simple looking design, but I am sure it has to be made in a specific way to remain balanced and flexible and intact.

We hiked a little over two miles into the hilly forest (3.8 km according to our GPS) to the release site; it was dusk when we arrived. Full moon, bats, frogs and insects calling. The chosen location was typical habitat for the species — clay to mud bottomed, slow flowing, forested streams. We spread out along a few hundred yards of the stream and sent the turtles on their way.

Dr. Innis releases a turtle

Because of the clay and mud, the water is not very clear, but I was still able to see the turtles for a minute or so if they remaining in shallow water. Their white neck ring shows well under water even when the rest of their body is not visible, of some biological significance I would guess.

A turtles takes a break before swimming off

Most of them swam away fast, but I was able to get a photo of one re-emerging to take a breath, with just his nose visible above the water line, and two other turtles under water nearby. As always, release brings feelings of relief, happiness, satisfaction, and worry about the future of these individuals. I expect that this was the best night that these nocturnal turtles have had from quite some time, with space to move, cool water, soft substrate below their injured shells, no more injections, no more tube feeding. We hiked out in the dark wearing head lamps.

A shy turtle poised to return to the wild

We all worry about the ongoing threat of poaching. One of the film crew that is here (Dr. James Liu) gained some insightful but concerning information during some of his interviews over the past few days, including clear details of the presence of a well organized poaching effort for turtles and pangolins. For island species with restricted distribution, such poaching can easily lead to extinction.

 Innis will be speaking about the experience on Thursday, October 29 as part of the Aquarium's free lecture series.

Read more about this shocking discovery of poached turtles and the international efforts to save them here and hereTurtle species around the world face threats to their survival. Support rescue groups, like the New England Aquarium's Rescue Team, and join movements in your community to help turtles. Learn more about what you can do to help turtles through our Turtle Rescue Team program. 

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