Last month, authorities in Hong Kong confiscated 7,500 turtles that were being smuggled into China, where turtle meat is considered a delicacy and turtle shells are used for medicinal purposes. Most of the terrapins were found with hooks still embedded in their mouths, and several hundred had died in transit. Today, many of the survivors find themselves on the other side of the earth, in Florida. The turtles are receiving expert care and could provide the stock that one day saves their species from extinction.
With a market value of more than $3 million, the confiscated freshwater turtles were destined for dinner plates in China . But they have been granted a reprieve. And many have been brought to Florida, thanks to the "Turtle Survival Alliance" and cargo space donated by United Airlines.
The alliance, an international coalition of scientists and conservationists, is working with governments in Asia and elsewhere to protect endangered turtles' natural habitats and crack down on illegal smuggling.
Al Weinberg, a commercial reptile breeder near Port St. Lucie, Florida, is providing the facilities for this unprecedented rescue and rehabilitation operation. Mr. Weinberg says the turtles confiscated in Hong Kong constitute but a tiny fraction of the terrapins smuggled every year in the region. "They were being illegally smuggled into China, where there is a huge marketing of turtles for food and what is known as "traditional medicine." And many of the turtles that are being eaten are 50, 60, 70, some even 100 years old," he says. "It takes a long time to replace those turtles, and, at the rate they are being consumed, there is no hope of sustaining the populations in the wild."
Pressed for time and resources, a small army of veterinarians, researchers and volunteers has set up an assembly line to process and care for the multitude of new arrivals. Many turtles are in need of immediate medical attention to combat dehydration and infection.
Then, each is examined, measured, weighed, and given an identifying mark by carving small notches on its outer shell.
In coming months, the terrapins will be distributed to U.S. zoos and research facilities, where it is hoped they will breed. With their numbers declining in their native habitats, these captive colonies constitute an insurance policy for the survival of the species.
Kurt Buhlmann belongs to the environmental group Conservation International. "The long-term goal of having these turtles here in the United States is not to have collections of turtles," he says. "The long-term goal is to form what we call "assurance colonies" that maximize our options for bringing these turtles back into the wild, where they belong I think we are viewing ourselves right now as stewards of these species."
Three-forths of Asian freshwater turtle species are considered endangered, many critically so. Conservationist Kurt Buhlmann says turtles may not be furry or cute, but they are worthy of protection nonetheless. "We would be poorer if the turtles disappeared. Turtles have been with us for 300 million years, they've been around since before the dinosaurs," he says. "They have a fantastic (evolutionary) design. They've certainly shown that they are able to survive through the eons. And if we were to lose turtles, I think we would look and marvel at what an amazing animal they were. It would just be a shame if turtles were not with us and if we were the cause of their final demise."
In an effort to provide more information about what is being done to save the turtles, Conservation International has established a web site that details the Alliance's efforts.