A Preliminary Review of the Medical Care Provided During the December, 2001 Asian Turtle Confiscation
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
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.