Update on Big-Headed Turtle Confiscation in Burma

by Rick Hudson 

Since we first broadcast the news of the Big-Headed Turtle (Platysternon megacephalum) confiscation in Burma on 7 November 2016, Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) staff and personnel have been busy organizing an effective response. We are grateful to the Myanmar Forestry Department for making the arrests and working with the TSA/Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) team in Burma to get these turtles in good hands for rehabilitation. The TSA immediately launched a campaign to help us respond to this crisis, and the outpouring of donations from our supporters has been incredible. Our response has been focused on putting qualified and experienced personnel on the ground, with the proper medications and treatments to save as many of these remarkable turtles as possible.


The history on these turtles is grim. Two Chinese traders were arrested in Tachileik holding more than 800 turtles in small plastic containers; many had died previously and it was the smell of dead turtles that caused authorities to search the home. Many had been under these conditions for seven to eight months, so they were emaciated and in various stages of starvation and dehydration when TSA received them. This essentially represents one of our worst nightmare scenarios, given this species‚Äô specialized husbandry requirements. From the time this confiscation was announced, TSA‚Äôs Director of Turtle Conservation, Kalyar Platt, has been working around the clock to keep up with the many demands of caring for over 800 sick turtles, while coordinating the travel plans and arrival of foreign responders. 

The turtles were moved to the TSA‚Äôs Turtle Rescue Center (TRC) in May Myo where the climate is cooler and conditions more favorable to their recovery. Once there, Kalyar Platt along with the WCS‚Äôs Dr. Tint Lwin, Me Me Soe, and the rest of their capable turtle staff, began the difficult task of trying to house this many Big-Headed Turtles ‚Äîwhich optimally should be kept individually‚Äîespecially the critical care cases. The TRC does not YET have dedicated and specialized facilities for this species, so the group was divided among three large ponds recently built to house softshell turtles. Efforts were made to provide security and retreats for the turtles with water hyacinth and clay pots. Critical care cases were housed individually in buckets in the TRC‚Äôs central triage building. 


The first team of outside responders to arrive was a team from Wildlife Reserves Singapore including Dr.Yaoprapa Mathura and Borja Reh, Curator of Herpetology, as well as Dr. Mark Valitutto of the Smithsonian Institution, but based in Burma. Triage procedures were immediately initiated, which meant sorting turtles by their likelihood of survival. Such a process allows limited resources to be devoted to the cases most likely to respond and pull though. During this difficult process the WCS/TSA team in Burma received excellent training and experience in managing a rescue event on this scale, and will be much better prepared in the future.  Given that Big-Headed Turtles are now selling for $200 in Burma before they are exported to China, we can expect to see more of these animals in the trade and future confiscations. A dedicated facility is a critical need for the near future.
The second team to arrive was TSA‚Äôs Sheena Koeth (Veterinary Care Manager for the Turtle Survival Center), and a seasoned veteran of triage events such as this, having worked the big Palawan Forest Turtle rescue in 2015, and just recently returned from helping out in Madagascar. She was followed the next day by Dr. Brian Horne (WCS Turtle Conservation Coordinator), then Cris Hagen (TSA Director of Animal Management) and finally a three person team arrived today from the Wildlife Conservation Society/Bronx Zoo including: Dr. Susie Bartlett, Dr. Charlotte Hollinger, Ihsaan Sebro and Dr. Nguyen Van Long (WCS Vietnam). They will be on-site for one week, followed by Dr. Bonnie Raphael (WCS senior veterinarian, retired), another hardened veteran of turtle rescue and triage.    
The reports coming in from various team members are encouraging. Yesterday, after 72 hours of continuous rain, the sun came out and some of the turtles began eating on their own, consuming fresh fish. Members of our team indicate that this has been a very emotional experience, seeing turtles go from weak, moribund and near death, to feeding voluntarily. Still much remains to be done, and there will be plenty of critical care cases to keep us busy for awhile. We will then need to begin planning for how and where to get these magnificent animals back into the wild where they belong.


 The TSA is deeply grateful to our many friends who have supported this rescue effort financially, and to Emeraid/Lafeber for their donation of intensive care tube feeding formula. If you would like to contribute to this rescue effort, please go online HERE. The following individuals and organizations are recognized for their generous response:

Supporters donating $5,000 and more
Virginia Zoo

Supporters donating $1,000 to $4,999
Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group
Utah's Hogle Zoo
J. E. Johnson
Roy Young

Supporters donating $500 to $999
Martin Dieck
Kurt A. Buhlmann
Nancy Karraker

Supporters donating $10 to $499
John Abramyan, Ben Anders, Nick Badham, Brett Baldwin, Erin Barmore, James Barzyk, Brian Bastarache, Gabriel Beckers, Christopher Bednarski, Torsten Blanck, Thea Artemis Boodhoo, Sebastian Braun, Rocko Brown, Scott Bryan, Marta Calix, Patricia Chu, Kimberly Crisci, Robert Dahlman, Jack Daigneault, Donnel Davis, Robin De Bled, Vicki Dennis, Jordan Donini, Catherine Draghetti, Brian Eisele, Richard Fife, Ryan Filler, Regina Gandour-Edwards, Andre Gaudette, Kimberly Gilchrist, Juan Manuel G√≥mez De Berrazueta, Amanda Guthrie, Richard Hahn, Susan Hardin, Melody Hartley, Donald Henderson, Richard Hills, Mark Hollowell, Lynne Hooper, Brian Horne, Thomas Derek Hudgins, Mary Hughes, Dana Isenberg, Hye Young Jeong, Catherine Jobling, Tyler Johnson, Howard Johnston, Vardhan Kondvikar, Madeleine Linck, Ernest Little, Lisa Marshall, Aaron Martyn, Donald McKnight, Ronald Michael, William Montgomery, Paige Morabito, Gregory Moss, Nancy Moysiuk. Weng Yan Ng, Emma  Nygren, Patricia Osborne, Cornell Pascual, David Pauwels, Mark Plimpton, Earl Possardt, Emily Rhine, Dorthea Robinson, Ellen Schafhauser, Peter Shadix, Chris Shupp, Rashmi Singh, Matt Smar, Richard Spotts, Leisa Stilley, Bradley Todd, Topeka Zoo, Billy Tu, Peter Paul Van Dijk, Joseph Ventura, Kent Vliet, Susanne Wahlquist, Judy Wheatley, Gregory Zapicchi