Turtles in Trouble
Asian turtles are in grave danger in the wild, and your Zoo is working to save them.
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo staff veterinarian Dr. Mike Selig experienced many firsts on his trip to Vietnam in November 2017. First trip to Asia. First time Cleveland Zoo animal care staff traveled to a conservation partner in Vietnam. First time traveling by motorcycle. First time eating with chopsticks.
But for all the memorable moments, perhaps the most striking event happened on his second day in the country. A tour of the Turtle Conservation Center (TCC) in Cuc Phuong National Park included a stop in the hospital room. On the hospital room wall hung a dry erase board, much like the ones that line the walls of the Sarah Allison Steffee Center where Dr. Selig spends each day caring for the Zoo’s many species.
“This board is just filled with the abbreviations and numbers of individual turtles, and I couldn’t even process the number of sick turtles that they were trying to manage,” said Dr. Selig. “It was just so overwhelming. I’m looking at this dry erase board and seeing the scope of the problem that they are trying to address on a day to day basis, and suddenly I recognized how big of an issue this is.”
Indeed, the problem is a big one. More than half of Asia’s 90 species of tortoises and freshwater turtles are endangered, with several species categorized by the IUCN as Critically Endangered — that’s one step away from extinct. The primary threat to turtles in Asia is the large-scale trade for sale in food markets throughout Asia and, for some, the medicinal and pet market. Couple that with habitat loss and the outlook for some of these species may seem grim.
Dr. Selig traveled to work with The Asian Turtle Program (ATP), which was founded in 2003 by Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and Cleveland Zoological Society with additional support from the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City to expand turtle conservation activities across the region. Led by a program coordinator and team in Vietnam, ATP’s primary goal is to establish a safe and sustainable future for Asian turtles.
He worked side by side with veterinarians and vet techs at TCC to care for and monitor more than 1,200 rescued turtles.
“Today ATP conducts a wide range of conservation, education and capacity-building activities focused on conserving the region’s most critically important turtle species,” said Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s Curator of Conservation Kym Gopp. Gopp coordinates the Zoo’s work with dozens of conservation partners around the globe and has worked with ATP since its creation.
This conservation work takes many forms: raising public awareness about the importance of protecting turtles, training the next generations of wildlife conservationists, students and veterinarians, and support for turtle rescue and conservation centers like TCC that provide hands-on care for tens of thousands of confiscated turtles a year.
ATP also manages the Asian Turtle Conservation Network, which provides an information — sharing network, global turtle conservation databases and monthly news bulletins across the region. This link is critical to ongoing collaboration throughout the region.
So, back at the TCC hospital, Dr. Selig rolled up his sleeves and got to work. For more than two weeks he worked side by side with veterinarians and vet techs at TCC to care for and monitor more than 1,200 rescued turtles. His break from the hospital came during lectures — 13 different lectures (and 500 PowerPoint slides!) at TCC and the two largest universities in the country, both in Hanoi.
Lecture topics ranged from animal care and husbandry at TCC to more general topics like maintaining good welfare at wildlife centers and how to extrapolate medical training on domestic animals to wild species.
“At the medical school in Hanoi, I tried to stress the need for vets such as themselves to really pick up the torch and be able to help these different organizations that are trying to do wildlife rehab work,” said Selig. “There’s a real lack of veterinary knowledge to work on some of these species, unfortunately” and the country as a whole is just beginning to understand the gravity of the problem and the opportunity to make a difference for species in the future, he said.
Another of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s conservation partners — Education for Nature-Vietnam — is making strides in changing the perception of the use of animals as medicine or decoration. ENV works to combat illegal trade of all animals, not just turtles, and they work closely with ATP and contribute to the Asian Turtle Conservation Network.
“ENV is really challenging some of those traditional cultural views about wildlife and trying to make sure people realize that using wildlife for things like traditional medicine or status symbols is a choice, not a necessity,” said Gopp.
For example, older generations in Vietnam believe there is medicinal value in tiger parts, which has led to poaching and trafficking of the endangered animal. The same cultural challenges exist for turtles and other species. Gopp said ATP and ENV are helping move the needle with younger generations and conservation-minded individuals of all ages. Dr. Selig saw that shift in mindset first-hand with the staff of the Turtle Conservation Center.
"You can tell how invested they were in what they were doing and how important it was to them," said Dr. Selig.
“They are so passionate about conservation there,” he said. “Every meal-time conversation we had, it was brought up … there was always some conservation discussion going on. You can tell how invested they were in what they were doing and how important it was to them.” And while TCC is considered one of the more well stocked and staffed rescue centers in the country, with about 12 full-time employees, part of Dr. Selig’s visit was about bringing back ideas of what TCC needed for further success. That, too, was a memorable experience for Dr. Selig.
Partnering for the future
“I think they’re doing a great job with the resources they have,” he said. “But the infrastructure still presents challenges for the staff to provide the best care for the turtles.”
Things that are taken for granted in most animal health care centers in the United States were a challenge at TCC, he said, including maintaining clean water flow. (“They’re taking care of turtles — you can’t run out of water when you’re taking care of turtles,” said Dr. Selig.) Future projects could improve electricity lines to the building and even adding space to the building for housing species that can't be released back to the wild.
Even after confiscated turtles are rescued, Gopp said, a lot of the pressures facing the turtles are still there — fear of being recaptured by hunters and habitat loss — so for some of the species, TCC remains home long after they recover.
Three small rooms, for example, had 190 Big Headed Turtles in individual containers — the result of a recent confiscation.
As the Zoo continues to work with ATP, ENV and others to secure a future for wildlife across the globe, collaboration will remain key. Dr. Selig said he found satisfaction in working with TCC’s animal care manager and a veterinary student who will soon graduate and remain at the center.
Months later, he’s getting emails still from his new friends and colleagues with updates on the turtles. “I’ve left but I’m still providing input, and I'm hoping that will continue. I would absolutely love to go back.”
To read more about the Zoo's Future for Wildlife work with Asian turtles, or to donate to help fund trips and projects like this, click here.
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