March 1, 2006

Getting a Second Chance

Each year, tons of turtles are hunted from their forest and wetland habitats, loaded in crates and rice sacks, and smuggled north across Vietnam?s border into China where their flesh is eaten and their shells are grounded up and used in traditional medicine.  Since the peak of the trade in the mid-1990s, enforcement has improved on both sides of the border, and the trade has been greatly reduced, in part because wild populations have been decimated across Indochina.  Many of the turtle being smuggled through Vietnam now originate from Cambodia or Laos, and police and forest rangers continue to make major busts along the nation?s highways, some still consisting of tones of animals.

A September 2005 release of Malayan box turtles at Cat Tien National Park, Dong Ngai Province, Vietnam

While the focus of conservation efforts rests squarely upon protecting turtles and other wildlife before it is hunted and collected for the trade, the issue of how and what to do with confiscated wildlife has remained a dilemma for the authorities.  Due to budget limitations, lack of knowledge and expertise, and other factors, most confiscated wildlife is simply either released locally or auctioned off under an odd legal loophole that encourages wildlife protection officers not to release ?sick and dying? wildlife, but allows the animals to be auctioned off to registered traders. 

Despite this loophole in the law, most provincial authorities wish to do what they believe is the right thing for wildlife that has been rescued from the trade, and release of confiscated wildlife has been common practice.

However the issue of releasing wildlife is not a simple solution.  Major problems associated with current release practices include; risk of introducing disease, undermining the genetic integrity of existing populations of the species in the habitat, introducing species outside of their native range, and releasing the animals into habitat that is not suitable for the species.  Sadly, most wildlife that has been released probably does not survive in their new strange and unfamiliar habitat. 

The problems of ?What to do with confiscated wildlife?? continues to complicate enforcement efforts and leaves conservationists ranting about what not to do with wildlife, but oddly silent when asked for positive solutions!

A single elongated tortoise makes a dash for cover after release at Cat Tien National Park in 2004.

The Humane Society International has long supported efforts in Vietnam to improve practices relating to the release of confiscated turtles.  Since 1999, a number of releases have been carried out moving animals from where they were confiscated in the north of Vietnam back to appropriate habitat within the species? range in the south.  Turtles that are confiscated are transferred to the Turtle Conservation Center (TCC) at Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam?s only turtle-focused rescue center, where they are quarantined and cared for before determination is made as to whether they can be released.  The lucky turtles that get a second chance are loaded into much friendlier crates than they came in, and shipped by train back to the south where they are then moved by truck to the designated release site, traditionally a national park or protected area where the species occur naturally and where the turtles have some level of protection in their new habitat.

Since 1999, six major releases have been carried out involving 600 turtles of five species, three release have involved the movement of turtles from the north of Vietnam where they were confiscated to the south where they were released.  Many smaller releases have also been carried out in the north of Vietnam.  Releases have included not just turtles that were saved from the soup pots of China, but also the offspring of rescued turtles, born at the turtle center, and head-started for two-three years prior to being marked and released.

An adult Siebenrockiella crassicollis gets a fresh start after being rescued from a shipment bound for China in September 2005 by Nghe Provincial Forest Rangers

One of the limitations preventing larger numbers of turtles being released, and in fact forcing the turtle center to turn away confiscations when the holding capacity of the center reaches a critical state, is the lack of a refined and systematic approach to transferring turtles for release back to the south.  Of critical importance is the need to identify potential release sites for each species, presumably selecting areas where release would not pose a risk to existing populations of turtles in the area.

In September 2005, our project team from the north, including the coordinator from the turtle center at Cuc Phuong visited Ho Chi Minh City and met with the director of the Ho Chi Minh wildlife protection authorities and discussed the need to devise a system for transferring animals back to the south, as well as to identify release sites.  The city plans to establish a rescue center in Cu Chi District in 2006 with the help of Wildlife at Risk, an NGO based in Ho Chi Minh.  Turtles have been identified as one of the principal wildlife species groups for which holding facilities will be constructed.  Our project team invited keeper staff of the new center and a veterinarian to attend a two-week training course of captive management and care of turtles at the Cuc Phuong TCC, held in November 2005.  Also discussed was the idea of how future trade seizures could be handled including northern wildlife protection authorities transferring the turtle to the center at Cuc Phuong.  The turtle center would then repack the healthy animals and move them by train south to Ho Chi Minh where they would then be quarantined at the Cu Chi Center prior to release at sites that have been pre-identified as appropriate for each individual species.  Putting the plan into motion was contingent upon identification of sites and completion of the Cu Chi Center and training of its staff. 

During the same mission, the project team visited Lo Go Xe Mat National Park in Tay Ninh Province and toured wetlands and open forest areas within the park, clearing the site as a possible release location for two common trade species. 

The process of getting to where we are today has been long and drawn out, and not without failures along the way, but the development of the new southern center will greatly facilitate the prospects of returning turtles to the wild, and giving them a second chance in nature.  Soon we hope that after we advise wildlife protection officers about what they should NOT do, we will have a ready alternative to offer, and the benefits to the few lucky turtles released so far, can be extended to many more.

Douglas Hendrie
Asian Turtle Conservation Program
C/o Education for Nature ? Vietnam
PO Box 222
Hanoi, Vietnam