A range country assurance colony for the Philippine Forest Turtle

Katala Foundation Incorporated (KFI) is a Palawan-based NGO working on the conservation of threatened native species. The Katala Institute for Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation (KIEBC), one of several centers / projects managed by KFI, is located in Antipuluan, Narra, Palawan. It is here that the only range country assurance colony of the Palawan endemic and critically endangered Philippine Forest Turtle (Siebenrockiella leytensis) is held.

One of the three major objectives of KIEBC is to develop procedures for rescue, conservation breeding, habitat restoration and eventually reintroduction of selected rare species from Palawan, like the Philippine Cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia) and the Philippine Forest Turtle.  In 2006, KFI and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources ‚Äì Protected Area and Wildlife Bureau (DENR-PAWB) signed a Memorandum of Agreement for the Philippine Freshwater Turtle Conservation Program (PFTCP). In this framework, and with the generous financial support of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) through the Shellshock Campaign, KFI built facilities to hold an assurance colony of S. leytensis in early 2007. In July 2007, 40 S. leytensis, which had been held in an over-crowded pond at a local rescue center since a 2005 confiscation, were transferred to the new facility. Since then, health status and husbandry conditions were closely monitored in collaboration with veterinarians from the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center (PWRCC), the DENR-PAWB, and the Philippine Association of Wildlife Veterinaries Incorporated (PAWVI), and the Provincial and Municipal Office of the DENR. Water samples and analysis had been conducted at regular intervals and the results were sent to relevant agencies.
In May 2009, several individuals became affected by shell rot. Heavy rain, resultant flooding and water quality issues were suspected to be contributing to the health problems. Given the limited laboratory facilities, medical supplies and freshwater turtle expertise of veterinarians in the area, the KFI approached the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) for technical assistance. A TSA veterinary member – Nimal Fernando - arrived within a month to assist with the problem. Also attending the trip were Rainier Manalo (Conservation International - Palawan) who has experience in pond filtering systems, Salvador Guion (PWRCC Keeper), Siegfred Diaz Field (Operations Coordinator of KFI) and Diverlie Acosta (KFI Keeper).

The assessment started with an overview of the tanks, ponds, water quality and general husbandry. The center is located in an area that is essentially a flood plain and the nearby coastline is dominated by mangroves and soft bottoms along a shallow intertidal zone. The water table of the property is high. During this trip – in the middle of the rainy season - we had to walk through about 800 m of mud to reach the center. Concrete breakdown and leaching, with resultant high pH elevations, were identified as an immediate concern. KFI will be looking at alternative liners and substrates in the future, as well as methods of naturally acidifying the water.

Aggression was also identified as a major concern and the turtles were spread over as many enclosures as possible. However, it has been impossible to separate them individually given space constraints. Aggression was observed in newly mixed turtles almost immediately, and extra 'furniture' like logs, etc have been placed in the ponds to try and remedy this. To address the plantar ulcerations, pebbles have been placed in the smaller pools to cover the concrete substrate.

Later that day, health assessment of all the S. leytensis commenced. Overall, this appears to be a tough species and relatively easy to examine as they are quite “outgoing”. Several turtles had successfully completed treatment for shell rot; however, five of these now appeared to be affected by pneumonia. A few new shell lesions were found and many turtles had ulcerative skin lesions around the tail / perineum or on the plantar surface of the hind feet. Two turtles were found to have subcutaneous abscesses, one around the knee and the other under the lower mandible. Both were curetted, flushed then packed with a debriding ointment, to be changed to an antibiotic ointment after about a week. All turtles showing either respiratory symptoms, moderate to severe skin ulceration or shell rot or abscesses were placed on injectable Fortum (Ceftazidine), and turtles with shell rot / skin ulceration placed on Acriflavin baths. Swabs for bacteriology assessment were taken from several shell wounds and abscesses. All individuals were eating and appeared strong. Half of the colony did not show any symptoms at all.

During the examination, KFI staff was trained in identifying health problems, examination and restraint of turtles and Diverlie Acosta (Turtle Keeper) was taught how to inject fluids and antibiotics.

There is a concern that the concrete quality and breakdown is creating problems in water quality that is detrimental to the health of S. leytensis but not to the other freshwater turtle species held at the center. Source water is high in pH but compounded by the concrete leaching, as evidenced by the alkalinity / hardness levels. The link to the heavy rainfall is still tenuous, and further investigation of groundwater contamination is needed. Aggression needs to be monitored as this is also probably impacting on the turtles in terms of social stress. The turtles are now on a treatment course that will need to be re-evaluated in a few weeks. At this stage, the turtles appear strong and retain good appetite and are expected to respond to treatment well. Underlying husbandry and water quality issues are most likely impacting negatively on their health problems and once resolved we are positive that in the near future KIEBC will have its first captive bred S. leytensis.

We would like to thank the TSA, especially Rick Hudson, for the quick response and assistance and for sponsoring the veterinary visit. Further, we would like to thank the management of Ocean Park Corporation for also partially funding the visit and the generous donation of medication. Thanks also to KFI’s principal sponsors and partner donors: Loro Parque Fundacion (LPF) Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP), Chester Zoological Gardens, and Conservation des Espèces et des Populations Animales (CEPA). Thanks to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources – Protected Area Wildlife Bureau for sharing our common concern for the conservation of threatened species. Thanks to the Shellshock Turtle and Tortoise Conservation Campaign of the Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). Thanks in particular to Kevin Buley, Shellshock Campaign Organizer and Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates at Chester Zoo, UK for providing the starting capital to put up the turtle facilities at KIEBC. We also would like to acknowledge the Turtle Conservation Fund for supporting KFI’s research on the species in the wild that is providing important information on its biology and ecology.

- Sabine Schoppe 
Project Director
Philippine Freshwater Turtle Conservation Program (PFTCP)
Katala Foundation Incorporated (KFI)

Nimal Fernando
Senior Veterinarian 
Ocean Park Corporation

The TSA has supported fieldwork for S. leytenis with Seed Grants in the past but this our first interaction with the captive population.  We look forward to becoming increasingly involved with this important program.