The Turtle Survival Alliance in Action: Surgical and Medical Triage of a Large Group of Confiscated Asian Turtles
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2002
Bonnie L. Raphael1, DVM, DACZM; Kurt A. Buhlmann2; Rick Hudson2
1Department of Clinical Care, Wildlife Health Sciences, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, NY, USA; 2Co-Chairs,Turtle Survival Alliance, Fort Worth Zoo, Fort Worth, TX, USA


In the mid-1990s it became widely recognized that turtles of the world, especially Asian turtles, were being overharvested and extirpated from range countries for use as food and traditional medicines in China.1 Markets became the final destination for many rare, endangered, and even undescribed, chelonians. As turtles were eliminated from the Chinese landscape, collectors and buyers went further afield into surrounding countries and as far as Madagascar and North America. Of the 90 recognized species of Asian chelonians, 45 are listed as critically endangered or endangered by The World Conservation Union (IUCN).2 The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) is an organization formed in 2001 in response to the Asian turtle extinction crises. As a joint initiative of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle and Conservation Breeding Specialist Groups, it is comprised of members from zoos and aquaria, universities, private breeders and hobbyists, commercial ventures, and governmental organizations. The primary mission of TSA is to
Develop and maintain an inclusive, broad-based global network of collections of living tortoises and freshwater turtles with the primary goal of maintaining Chelonian species over the long term to provide maximum future options for the recovery of wild populations.”

As such, the TSA has reached out to Asian governments to offer options and assistance in enforcing protection of chelonians. In many countries there is legislation in place to protect and conserve, or control harvesting of turtles. Enforcement of the legislation has been weak, in part due to the realities of having to overcome the logistic difficulties of caring for large numbers of confiscated animals when wildlife laws are enforced.

On December 11, 2001, a confiscation of turtles was made by the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department and Customs Ship Search and Cargo Command.3 The seizure was comprised of approximately 7500 individuals representing at least 12 species (Table 1), all originating from Southeast Asia. The animals had been transported in severely overcrowded conditions with no consideration for their biologic needs, destined for food markets. They were placed at the Kadoorie Botanical Gardens in Hong Kong until final destinations could be arranged. The small staff at Kadoorie was faced with the daunting task of uncrating, setting up enclosures, providing food and water and medical care for the 7000+ survivors.

Table 1. Turtles confiscated in Hong Kong December 2001


Common name

IUCN Red List status

Number of individuals

Siebenrockiella crassicollis

Black marsh turtle



Callagur borneoensis

Malaysian painted terrapin

Critically endangered


Cyclemys sp.

Leaf turtle

Lower risk


Malayemys subtrijuga

Malayan snail-eating turtle



Cuora amboinensis

Malayan box turtle



Manouria emys

Asian brown tortoise



Orlitia borneensis

Malaysian giant turtle



Hieremys annandalei

Yellow-headed temple turtle



Batagur baskar

River terrapin

Critically endangered


Heosemys grandis

Ornate Asian pond turtle



Notochelys platynota

Malayan flat-shelled turtle



Heosemys spinosa

Spiny turtle



The co-chairs of the TSA were contacted as the confiscation was being made and they initiated actions to place the turtles within the TSA network. Species that had been confiscated were identified, and Taxon Management Groups (TMG) were mobilized. Each TMG has a manager and veterinary advisor. Arrangements were made to transport the animals to the United States at no charge. Due to the large numbers of animals, a site in Florida was chosen as the receiving port. Veterinary members of the TSA mobilized to acquire supplies and volunteers and to develop medical protocols for management of the incoming animals. Recommendations for quarantining animals, handling samples, acquiring biologic materials, data collection and triage scoring systems were developed. Movement of the animals from Hong Kong to the United States was delayed by the challenge of arranging transport during the December holidays. The first shipments of 461 turtles arrived in the United States on December 28 and 29, followed by 671 animals on January 3, and 2070 turtles on January 11. In addition, 1000 turtles were shipped from Kadoorie Farms to European facilities.

Shipments arriving in the United States were handled as follows: The crates were picked up at the Miami International Airport, the shipment was inspected by customs and USFWS and loaded onto rental trucks for the 5-h transport to a private facility and warehouse. Upon arrival, volunteers unloaded and uncrated animals and they were either set up in enclosures with food and water or triaged. Each animal was assigned a permanent TSA ID number and marked by drilling or notching the carapace. A triage classification of 1–5 (1=healthy, 5=dead) was assigned to each animal. Depending on the triage rating, they either received immediate veterinary care or were processed by zoologists. All animals were weighed and measured. One volunteer was assigned to each animal (and its paper records) entire processing procedure. Subsequent to being processed the animals in triage categories 1 and 2 were immediately packed and sent to final destinations or rehabilitation and treatment facilities. The length of time from arrival in the United States to final destinations rarely exceeded 5 days.

At the veterinary stations, the animals were examined and treated. All animals received antibiotics and anthelmintics, most received intracoelomic fluids and some received antifungal agents (Table 2). External parasites were mechanically removed, followed by treatment with an acaracide. Animals determined to be category 3 or higher were placed in holding areas where they could be more easily treated and monitored. Some animals were subsequently administered nutrients and medications via gavage.

Table 2. Medications used on confiscated Asian turtles





20 mg/kg q 72 h

i.ce., i.m., s.c.

Balanced electrolyte solution

20 ml/kg

i.ce., s.c.


5 mg/kg q 72 h

i.ce., s.c.


50 mg/kg s.i.d. x 2–3 days


Levamisol HCl

5 mg/kg repeat in 10–14 days



50 mg/kg s.i.d. x 2–3 days


Gavage formula:
- Fluconazole 1 mg/ml
- Metronidazole 5 mg/ml
- Fenbendazole 5 mg/ml
- Iodohydroxiquinol 5 mg/ml
- Omnivore diet

10 ml/kg s.i.d. x 2–3 days


Intracoelomic fluids:
- Balanced electrolyte solution
- Ceftazidime 1 mg/ml
- Levamisol 0.5 mg/ml

20 ml/kg once


By radiography and examination with a metal detector it was determined that >60% of the Malaysian giant turtles (Orlitia borneensis) had fishhooks present, most in the esophagus and periesophageal tissue. Anesthesia and surgical removal of the hooks was performed on 36 turtles on site, and on 19 that had been transferred to other facilities.

Animals that arrived dead were also given ID numbers and subsequently permanently marked. A subset of the animals were necropsied by clinical veterinarians (1st shipment) or a veterinary pathologist. Histopathology was performed on those. Other materials that were collected included blood samples for genetics, toenail clippings for minerals and isotopes, ticks for identification and disease transmission studies, internal parasites for identification, and ingesta for determination of consumed food items. Most of the carcasses were placed into museum collections for further studies.

The results of the confiscation and subsequent actions by the TSA include the following:

1.  Wildlife officials in Hong Kong have expressed appreciation for the sincere effort that was made to assist them.

2.  Three-hundred twenty-five animals were placed in 11 zoos, 154 with four veterinarians, 43 at two veterinary schools, 641 at two fish farms, and 1397 with private individuals and organizations. These placements will advance the goal of establishing assurance colonies of several species.

3.  Humane care was provided to many animals that otherwise would have suffered in meat markets.

4.  Protocols for triage and treatment of large numbers of animals were developed.

5.  Important information regarding health and disease status of recently confiscated and imported animals was collected.

6.  Important biologic information on 12 species of turtles was acquired.

Plans for potential future confiscations have been developed and include 1) the formation of a confiscation and triage team to travel to the site of confiscations for initial medical care and processing, 2) protocols to handle and house imported animals in indoor facilities, 3) immediate transport from the point of importation to final destinations or rehabilitators, and 4) more stringent guidelines and protocols for subsequent treatment and necropsy of all specimens.


Thirty-three veterinarians from seven zoos and aquariums, four foundations or corporations, five universities and numerous private veterinary practices as well as veterinary technicians and veterinary students were integral to the successful care and treatment of the turtles. They include: Gary Ades, Barbara Bonner, Ilze Berzins, Shane Boylan, Danielle Cain, Paul Calle, Beth Chittick, Bob Collins, Diane Deresienski, Ryan DeVoe, Genny Dumonceaux, Nimal Fernandez, Shannon Ferrell, Joe Flanagan, Scott Gearhart, Stacey Gore, Pat Gullet, Perrin Hammond, Amy Haqley, Peter Helmer, Heather Henson, Dennis Herman, Charles Innis, Howard Krum, Maud LaFortune, Greg Lewbart, Mike Olowe, Nancy Lung, Barbara Mangold, Nancy Mettee, Chris Miller, David Murphy, Don Neiffer, Terry Norton, John Olsen, Ross Prezant, Geoff Pye, Sam Rivera, Chris Tabaka, Scott Terrell, Maureen Trogdon.

Literature Cited

1.  van Dijk, P.P., B.L. Stuart, and A.G. J. Rodin. 2000. Asian Turtle Trade, Proceedings of a Workshop on Conservation and Trade of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises in Asia. Chelonian Research Monographs. 2:13–14.

2.  Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter 2001. Chelonian Research Foundation 3:10–14.

3.  Lewbart, G. et al. 2002. A preliminary review of the December, 2001 Asian turtle confiscation. IAAAM Proceedings, Portugal.


Speaker Information
(click the speaker's name to view other papers and abstracts submitted by this speaker)

Bonnie L. Raphael, DVM, DACZM
Department of Clinical Care
Wildlife Health Sciences
Wildlife Conservation Society
Bronx, CA, USA

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