Saving our sea turtles
It’s not always easy sharing an island with Trinbagonians. Our wildlife, for example, is always in danger of being thrown into a pot for someone’s lime, or of having their habitat fragmented, encroached on or polluted.
Trinbagonians are not big on the concept of sharing, especially sharing our environment with creatures that flutter, crawl, scamper, swim, fly or hop. Most of the wildlife encounters we hear about these days are quite sad; the otter whose home is being refurbished under the banner of progress, the baby manatee that died and the bags full of dead scarlet ibis.
One human-wildlife encounter that resulted in good news was the case of a dying Hawksbill seaturtle that was nursed back to health and released into our waters. This was thanks to efforts and coordination between the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), Glasgow University Expedition Group, North East Sea Turtles/Speyside Eco Marine Park Rangers (NEST/SEMPR), the University of the West Indies School of Veterinary Medicine (UWI SVM) and the Forestry Division.
The Hawksbill seaturtle is at imminent risk of global extinction but is still eaten in T&T although consumption is now illegal. Beaches in North East Tobago such as Hermitage and Campbleton are prime hawksbill nesting and poaching sites. According to community groups working in these areas, eating turtle is considered a cultural norm and poaching continues despite increased beach patrols, awareness and education initiatives.
The turtle was found by ecologists Grant Walker, Mairi Hilton and Joe Clerke, affiliated with the Glasgow University Expedition on 3rd July on a night patrol of Campbleton beach in North East Tobago. Walker explains when they first found the turtle it was lifeless. “The only signs of life were the occasional blink and involuntary muscle twitch.” The group felt that they had to attend to the animal because its chances of survival were dramatically decreasing. “She was extremely dehydrated and we had to do something before the rising sun or a poacher came. We thought she would have been dead in less than 12 hours.”
The Glasgow team and NEST members moved quickly to provide care and support for the turtle, who they affectionately named “Turty”. THA’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment wildlife biologist, Angela Ramsey mobilised help and assistance with Game Wardens coming to Charlotteville.
Turty remained in Charlotteville under the care of Mairi Hilton, Marek Wolf and others following initial treatment from THA’s Veterinary Officer, Dr Michael Downes and advice from turtle experts at the Florida Keys Turtle Hospital. Though she improved, she was in no way ready for release. She needed more care, and the technical expertise and equipment required to diagnose and treat a sick sea turtle was not available in Tobago.
Turty was brought to the UWI SVM Aquatic Animal Health Unit in Trinidad. She was placed under care of the talented Dr Carla Phillips, whose skills and expertise include medical and surgical knowledge of wild and captive whales, dolphins, manatees and sea turtles. The turtle was housed in a special marine tank and x-rays, blood tests and other diagnostics were performed. Turty required vigilance and constant care and Dr Phillips ensured she got both around the clock. Turty’s treatment included drip fluid therapy, deworming, stimulation of gut movement, daily feeding of a special diet using a stomach tube. She even received vitamins and antibiotics.
Dr Phillips diagnosed Turty with Floating Syndrome due to excessive gas accumulation throughout the digestive tract, coupled with severe hypoglycemia, dehydration, anaemia and a disorder that caused her blood to fail to clot. How did she get so sick? Dr Phillips explains the most likely scenario. “When sea turtles return to coastal waters to feed they may encounter near-shore pollution that makes them more susceptible to illness. Animals that feel unwell often go off-feed. If a sea turtle goes off-feed and gas begins to accumulate in the digestive tract, the animal will become increasingly positively buoyant.
“That is, the air in the gut of the animal is akin to air filling a balloon; the animal will start to float. If the animal is excessively buoyant, it then cannot dive and stay submerged in order to feed.
“If the animal is unable to feed it will in turn become energy deficient. We have a situation where we have an animal that is unable to dive both because of a lack of energy and because of excessive buoyancy. Ill, energy deficient, excessively buoyant sea turtles quickly exhaust themselves as they struggle to make repeated futile attempts to dive.
Such an animal will soon become incapable of swimming against ocean currents and will ultimately wash ashore in a state of debilitation. This is what we believe may have been the case with Turty.”
Turty responded to treatment, put on weight and eventually got a clean bill of health. On September 15, Dr Phillips brought her back to Tobago to be released in the vicinity where she was found. With cheering and support from Game Wardens, community members and the veterinary fraternity, Turty was placed on the shoreline, made her way towards the ocean, turned around as if to say goodbye to her well-wishers, then disappeared below the waves.
The future for endangered Hawksbill sea turtles got a little bit brighter.
Dr Adana Mahase-Gibson is a project management professional and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. She works in the field of sustainable development with communities, government, businesses & NGOs in Trinidad and Tobago under the banner of Ecohealth. This column looks the intricate connections of human, animal and environmental health through a sustainability lens.
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