Staff with the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue Program (STRP) are thrilled about expanding our conservation partnership with the Turtle Survival Alliance, an international organization dedicated to preventing extinction of the world’s most critically endangered turtle and tortoise species. Many of the species aided by TSA are nearly extinct in the wild and continue to face imminent threats, including unsustainable harvest for food markets and poaching for the pet trade.
In 2013, TSA opened the Turtle Survival Center, located less than an hour from the Aquarium, for the purpose of housing assurance colonies against extinction. Today, this living collection of turtles consists of more than 500 individuals of 32 carefully selected species. Five dedicated and highly skilled TSA staff members manage all aspects of turtle care, including regulated reproduction and medical treatment. As you may imagine, the workload at the Center is immense! Aquarium staff are proud to have provided assistance to the Center since 2014 and, with the recent addition of a fourth sea turtle biologist to our STRP team, we now have an increased ability to contribute to TSA’s critical conservation work.
We feel very fortunate for the opportunity to collaborate with Center staff, not only because the global conservation work they’ve undertaken is so vital but also because they’ve granted us the ability to work with rare and exotic turtles that we’d otherwise likely never see in our lifetimes. Recently, we were able to assist Cris Hagen, Director of Animal Management, with admission exams on 13 newly arrived Indochinese box turtles (Cuora galbinifrons). These 13 were among 105 turtles selflessly donated to TSA in October 2015 for conservation purposes by Vivian Cheung, a remarkable woman who initially rescued them from Hong Kong food markets more than a decade ago. Luckily, Cris is an expert at getting uncooperative box turtles to come out of their shell (pun intended!), and we were able to safely and easily inject identifying microchips into each animal and take PCR swabs for disease screening.
Our Aquarium’s sea turtle biologists especially enjoy opportunities to assist Sheena Koeth, Veterinary Care Manager, with medical exams and treatments, as these learning opportunities can potentially translate into even better care for the sick and injured sea turtles we rehabilitate in our hospital. Last week at the Center, we harvested bananas grown on-site to administer anti-parasitic oral medication to critically endangered Sulawesi forest turtles (Leucocephalon yuwonoi). Watching these beautiful little turtles devour bananas (with medication hidden inside) off plates fashioned from banana leaves would put a smile on anyone’s face! Working with Sheena has also provided us with great networking opportunities, as several well-qualified veterinarians regularly assist the Center. Last April, staff biologist Christi Hughes was able to learn from Dr. Sam Rivera, Senior Veterinarian at Zoo Atlanta, and renowned sea turtle veterinarian Dr. Terry Norton, while assisting with endoscopy procedures on juvenile spider tortoises (Pyxis arachnoides brygooi) native to Madagascar.
Our Aquarium’s veterinarian, Dr. Shane Boylan, has been working with the TSA since 2001 and has also recently become more involved with TSA’s conservation work on several fronts. Dr. Boylan’s expertise with chelonian medical care has proven beneficial at the Center and he now works closely with Sheena Koeth to maintain the health and well-being of the living collection. In addition, Dr. Boylan has traveled to TSA’s Belize field station on multiple occasions to provide expert assistance with captive breeding endangered Central American river turtles (Dermatemys mawaii), locally known as Hicatee. Excitingly, the Belize field crew recently celebrated the successful hatching of seven new Hicatee turtles! Further successful captive breeding will provide hatchlings for release in the hopes of aiding severely depleted wild populations.
Although the future of many turtle and tortoise species around the world, including our local population of threatened loggerhead sea turtles, is currently in question, collaboration among various stakeholders (including the public) can make a difference. Celebrated biologist Sylvia Earle stated in her recent talk, “Why do Zoos and Aquariums Matter?”, that “every cause for concern is a cause for hope.” The partnership formed by the STRP and TSA has truly been rewarding and beneficial on both fronts, and our teams are thrilled to continue to learn from, and help, one another. These turtles are our cause for hope. What is yours?