Crisis in the Philippines: Update from the Field

by Rick Hudson 

On Friday June 19, the turtle conservation community woke up to a nightmare: 3,800 critically endangered Philippine Forest Turtles (Siebenrockiella leytensis) confiscated in a Chinese warehouse in Palawan and in need of immediate assistance. The images were shocking, sickening: turtles being moved by the truckload to a rescue center not prepared to hold them. Injuries were obvious. Turtles were dying. There was chaos and nerves were frazzled.

A coalition of turtle conservation groups rapidly came together and began mobilizing support. Sabine Schoppe (Katala Foundation) was taking charge of the local response and appealing for assistance, both financial and veterinary. Facing huge logistical challenges, Sabine had to secure funds to renovate old crocodile facilities at the Palawan Wildlife Rescue Center, while bringing in water, establishing shaded work areas for triage and treatment, and sorting through thousands of turtles, many in need of immediate veterinary aid. Sabine was assisted by an able group of Filipino students who helped ready the rescue center for both turtles and visitors, and helped prepare for the arrival of international responders. How was it possible that a species (formerly known from only four specimens) only recently rediscovered in northern Palawan (2004) where it is thought to have a very restricted range, could turn up in such staggering numbers? Since the species was rediscovered, we know that a collecting frenzy has been underway and sizeable trade seizures have been made, but nothing of this magnitude. The number exceeded our understanding of what the wild population might be and sent shockwaves throughout the turtle community. At TSA headquarters, we dropped everything and moved into full-scale crisis mode.

The following turtle conservation groups quickly pledged a total of $11,000 in financial support: Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Turtle Conservancy (TC), Turtle Conservation Fund, Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group and Chelonian Research Foundation. Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) followed with a $12,000 pledge. But the most pressing issue was getting boots on the ground quickly - particularly vet support. Our first team deployed on Sunday, June 21, and included Drs. Paul Gibbons (TC) and Charlie Innis (New England Aquarium/TSA), and were met by Drs. Paolo Martelli (Ocean Park Hong Kong) and Sonja Luz (WRS). They were soon joined by Dr. Karthi Martelli (Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden) and Cris Hagen (TSA). This first response team had their work cut out for them and responded magnificently, sorting through and triaging nearly 3700 turtles in the first two days. A second wave of support will deploy this week as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) team arrives, including a veterinarian, a vet tech, pathologist and a logistics manager.

According to Drs. Paul Gibbon and Charles Innis, the team is primarily dealing with necrotic shell lesions secondary to trauma and septicemia, dehydration, distal limb edema and claw loss from extended contact with concrete and corneal ulcers. Aggressive antibiotic and fluid therapy begin to take affect and the number of turtles dying began decreasing rapidly as they responded to treatment and began to eat voluntarily.

The good news is that so far, about 2,200 turtles were judged healthy enough to be released - encouraging news as it will give these turtles a better chance for survival and greatly reduce crowding at the rescue center for this species that stresses easily when maintained in groups. Remaining are approximately 1,000 live turtles that in poor to fair condition, though the team is pleased to see fewer deaths than in previous days. All of the remaining turtles have started treatment for management of bone infections, eye problems, emaciation, dehydration, and septicemia. As we move into the next phase of management, our challenge will be to provide a continuous veterinary nursing team to manage these issues, as many of the turtles will need therapy for several months. We are in the process of putting together teams of veterinarians, vet techs and experienced turtle keepers who can provide treatment and rehab until they are healthy enough for release.

Offers of assistance have been steadily rolling in since this crisis broke, and we are constantly amazed by the generosity, compassion and outpouring of support shown by our community. The list of supporters is too numerous to list here ‚Äì  more than 100 online donations to the TSA alone - but some of the more significant donations include the Woodland Park Zoo, Moody Gardens and Aquarium, George Meyer and Ed Neil. Our long-time partner Zoo Med Laboratories just arranged for a turtle food donation through their local distributor in the Philippines as well. We will post additional updates here as they become available. Thank you for your continued support as we help to coordinate efforts to rehabilitate and reintroduce as many of these Critically Endangered animals as possible over the coming weeks and months. Click here to make a gift toward this rescue today.