A Preliminary Review of the Medical Care Provided During the December, 2001 Asian Turtle Confiscation
IAAAM Archive
Gary Ades1; Nimal Fernando1; Barbara Bonner2; Kurt Buhlmann3; Joe Flanagan4; Charles Innis5; Gregory Lewbart6; Ryan DeVoe6; Mike Lowe6; Nancy Lung7; Rick Hudson7; Annabel Ross7; Bonnie Raphael8; Paul Calle8; Darrell Senneke9; Chris Tabaka10
1Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden, Tai Po, New Territories, Hong Kong, China; 2Turtle Hospital of New England, Upton, MA, USA; 3Conservation International, Washington, DC, USA; 4Houston Zoo, Houston, TX, USA; 5VCA Westboro Animal Hospital, Westboro, MA, USA; 6North Carolina State University, College of Veterinary Medicine, Raleigh, NC, USA; 7Fort Worth Zoo, Fort Worth, TX, USA; 8Wildlife Conservation Society/Bronx Zoo, Bronx, NY, USA; 9World Chelonian Trust; 10Memphis Zoo, Memphis, TN, USA


On December 11, 2001, authorities in Hong Kong confiscated an illegal shipment of Asian turtles destined for use as food and traditional medicine. Most of these animals were native to Borneo, Sumatra, and other parts of Southeast Asia. There were approximately 7,500 turtles in this confiscation with an estimated value of $3.2 million. Many of these turtles, belonging to about a dozen species, are considered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) to be critical, endangered, or vulnerable. Some species are also listed as Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) animals. People wishing to deal with any animal or plant listed with CITES require special permits. Those animals listed as CITES Appendix I cannot be sold or traded for commercial purposes. At least 13,000 metric tons of turtles are exported from Southeast Asia to East Asia each year (van Dijk et al., 2000). It is estimated that three quarters of the 90-plus species of Asian freshwater and aquatic turtles are now threatened or endangered, largely due to the illegal Chinese food trade and habitat loss (Strassman, 2001; Turtle Survival Alliance, 2002). Some biologists estimate that many of these species will be extinct in the wild within the next ten years (Turtle Survival Alliance, 2002).

The Turtle Survival Alliance had anticipated such a confiscation and mobilized quickly to arrange for emergency housing, medical treatment, and transportation of the animals to the United States and Europe. The confiscated animals, crammed into four, six-meter shipping containers, were brought to the Kadoorie Botanical Gardens in Hong Kong following the confiscation at the Hong Kong waterfront. The turtles were seized on a river barge from Macao. The seizure was a combined effort between the Customs Ship Search, the Cargo Command, and the Agriculture Fisheries and Conservation Department. Four men were arrested during this operation. It is believed the majority of the turtles were flown to Macao from Singapore earlier in December. Many of the animals were in severe distress having been deprived of food and water for an indeterminate amount of time. A large number of them still contained fish hooks with fishing line protruding from their mouths. Approximately six percent of the shipment was dead-on-arrival with many more animals in a moribund state. The following species are known to have been part of the shipment: black marsh turtle (Siebenrockiella crassicollis), Malaysian giant turtle (Orlitia borneensis), yellow-headed temple turtle (Hieremys annandalei), river terrapin (Batagur baskar), giant Asian pond turtle (Heosemys grandis), Malayan flat-shelled turtle (Notochelys platynota), spiny turtle (Heosemys spinosa), Asian brown tortoise, (Manouria emys), Malayan box turtle (Cuora amboinensis), Malayan snail-eating turtle (Malayemys subtrijuga), leaf turtle (Cyclemys sp.) and the Malaysian painted terrapin (Callagur borneoensis).

International members of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), coordinated by its co-chairs and veterinary advisors, arranged for several shipments of approximately 4,200 turtles to Miami, Florida and the European Union (approximately 3000 turtles from the confiscation died in Hong Kong). The first Miami shipments arrived in late December and early January and contained approximately 1200 turtles. Once the animals cleared U.S. Customs and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspections, they were transported by truck to the Alapattah Flats Turtle Preserve near Fort Pierce, FL where a "chelonian M.A.S.H." unit was set up with the help of a number of biologists, volunteers, and veterinarians. The largest of the Miami shipments arrived on January 12, 2002 and contained over 2200 turtles belonging to 12 species.

As turtles were unpacked from their transport boxes most were triaged by a team of veterinarians and assigned a triage rating of between one and five with one being clinically stable and five being dead. Many of the animals were classified as category three or four. Animals were then given an identification number by species and marked using a system of notches on the marginal scutes. The most endangered species were also implanted with microchips. Each turtle and its accompanying paperwork was then assigned to a volunteer "runner" who transported the animal to one of the numerous veterinary stations. Due to the overwhelming number of chelonian patients, most of the animals were given a "standard" intracoelomic fluid treatment containing ceftazidime (20 mg/kg) and levamisole (5 mg/kg). Most of the animals received 20 ml/kg of these "spiked" fluids. The only exceptions to this protocol were the Malayan box turtles and the black marsh turtles. These two species, considered vulnerable but not endangered, comprised about 50% of the shipment. There was only time and resources for a quick triage and intramuscular injectable amikacin (5 mg/kg) and levamisole (5 mg/kg). Unless severely dehydrated, these animals were given access to fresh water, which most eagerly consumed. Some of the aquatic turtles were placed in a dilute acriflavine bath after being unpacked from their shipping boxes. Deceased animals received complete gross necropsy examinations at the Florida facility. Results of these necropsies aided veterinarians in the continued treatment of live specimens. The predominant medical problems identified in the turtles included dehydration, emaciation, heavy parasitism (both internal and external), pneumonia and septicemia.

Triage category one and two animals were transported to a number of public and private facilities capable of managing these animals. Many triage category three and four animals continued with on-site treatment or were shipped to veterinary facilities where they could be closely monitored and managed. A number of turtles had fish hooks surgically removed while at the Florida facility, or upon arrival at other locations.

There is no current plan to return these animals to the wild due to their critical current situation and the lack of effective protection in their native habitat. One goal of the TSA is to establish "assurance colonies" of these animals in order to preserve the species for breeding and future reintroduction to their native habitats if appropriate locations can be identified.

This is a developing story. Many of the animals are still undergoing medical treatment and rehabilitation at various institutions. Details of the diagnostic efforts, treatment protocols, clinical outcomes, and necropsy results will appear in a variety of scientific forums during the coming months and years.

At the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine we are currently treating members of three species: C. amboiensis, H. spinosa, and O. borneensis. These animals have received general supportive care and a variety of antimicrobial and antiparasite chemotherapeutants. Some have undergone diagnostic tests including bloodwork, radiography, and in one case, endoscopy, ultrasound, and computed tomography.

Management of this confiscation was a huge and predominantly successful undertaking for the recently founded TSA. The immediate challenge to the TSA is to assess the success of this confiscation, improve on its execution, and prepare for future confiscations that are certain to occur. The appetite for turtle in the Chinese food market is great and will not dissipate in the foreseeable future.


Dozens if not hundreds of people have been involved with the effort to save these valuable animals including colleagues in Asia and Europe. The following people were involved with the Florida operation and deserve special recognition: Ilze Berzins, Shane Boylan, Danielle Cain, Beth Chittick, Bob Collins, Diane Deresienski, Genny Dumonceaux, Shannon Ferrell, Scott Gearhart, Stacey Gore, Pat Gullet, Perrin Hammond, Amy Hawley, Peter Helmer, Heather Henson, Dennis Herman, Jenny Kishimori, Howard Krum, Maud LaFortune, David Lee, Barbara Mangold, Nancy Mettee, Chris Miller, David Murphy, Don Neiffer, Terry Norton, John Olsen, Ross Prezant, Geoff Pye, Sam Rivera, Scott Terrell, Maureen Trogdon, Al and Jackie Weinberg, and the NCSU-CVM Turtle Rescue Team. Apologies to any individuals not mentioned.

A large number of organizations and institutions have contributed to this effort. These include the Alapattah Flats Turtle Preserve, Busch Gardens of Tampa, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Conservation International, the Detroit Zoo, Disney's Animal Kingdom, Florida Atlantic University, the Fort Worth Zoo, the Houston Zoo, the Lowry Park Zoo, the Memphis Zoo, Turtle Hospital of New England, North Carolina State University, SeaWorld of Florida, Southwest Texas State University, the Tortoise Reserve Inc., University of California at Davis, University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Lab, the University of Miami, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Apologies to any institutions or groups not mentioned.


1.  Strrassmen N. 2001. Turtle harvest raises concerns; Meeting here, scientists say Asian varieties suffer most. Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Reprinted, Journal of Herpetological Medicine and Surgery, 11(3):38.

2.  Turtle Survival Alliance Web Site (2002): www.turtlesurvival.org

3.  Van Dijk PP, Stuart BL, and Rhodin AGJ (eds.). 2000. Asian turtle Trade. Proceedings of a Workshop on Conservation and Trade of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises in Asia, Chelonian Research Foundation, 164 pp.

Speaker Information
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Gary Ades

Gregory A. Lewbart, MS, VMD
North Carolina State University, College of Veterinary Medicine
Raleigh, NC, USA

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