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Asian Turtle and Tortoise Medical Care -  Chris Tabaka, DVM

Copyright 2003 World Chelonian Trust. All rights reserved

  One of the most difficult questions and one which I am getting more and more of late is the following: "I recently bought/received an adult wild caught Asian turtle/tortoise and it isn't doing right.  What should I do?".

Rather than getting into specifics for each species (I will go more into depth with a variety of individual genuses and species in future issues), I would like to cover a few generalities regarding the Asian turtle trade as it pertains to medical issues.

First off, as everyone knows, finding a turtle in the wild tends to be extremely difficult.  For example, on a really good day, I may be able to find three or four box turtles in the woods surrounding Memphis.  This also holds true in Asia.  Because of this the wholesalers require the widespread services/collecting abilities of remote villages/villagers in various countries in order to bring enough animals in to satisfy the tremendous food trade as well as the lucrative pet trade.  These animals are collected over a period of weeks to months and stockpiled in the villages until there are sufficient quantities to be able to send them along.  Food and water may or may not be offered during this entire time depending on the situation.

The animals then journey to the wholesalers "warehouse" where again they build up in numbers until there are sufficient quantities to make it worthwhile to ship.  Again, access to food and water may be limited if even available during this time.  It is also thought that while animals such as Cuora pani and Cuora trifasciata are treated with kid gloves all the way through the shipping process from the villages to their new owners due to their high dollar "values", others such as Cuora amboinensis and Cuora galbinifrons are treated essentially like a commodity.  There is a tremendous degree of mixing of species and cross contamination taking place during this time. 

From this point, the animals may be sold into the pet market or into the food markets of China depending on their size, species, and condition.  It appears that the vast majority of the adult animals of the larger species go into the food markets including Heosemys spinosa, Heosemys grandisManouria emys Indotestudo elongata, and Orlitia borneoensis.   Others such as four inch H. spinosa and Indotestudo forsteni as well as others in high demand in the pet trade (C. pani, C. trifasciata, C. aurocapitata for example) tend to get shipped around the world via various exporters/importers. 

The above collection and transport process leads to a number of massive problems in terms of the medical conditions of these animals. 

First and foremost, many of these chelonia are without food or water for weeks to several months.  Many of these animals when stressed behave like California desert tortoises and eliminate their water reserves rapidly thus leading to severe dehydration as time goes along.  Some of these animals are also subjected to a variety of methods in order to increase their weights (and thus food market values as the $ amount is based on weight) including the forcible ingestion of such materials as sand to the actual injections of river/tap water into their bodies. 

The conditions the animals are kept in also contribute greatly to their poor health.  Thousands upon thousands of animals go through these facilities leading to severe contamination of the holding facilities.  One researcher who performed bacterial cultures of two of these facilities said that it was easier to tell me what organisms did NOT grow rather than what did grow on the cultures due to the massive variety and abundance of bacterial organisms.  Fungal organisms also likely abound in this setting and though our testing methods are only now starting to develop as the demand and monies build up, viral organisms including such maladies as herpes are also likely having a large impact. 

Lastly, and most importantly in some terrestrial species, it appears that the exposure of a number of the terrestrial turtles as well as tortoises to protozoans that are typically carried by aquatic species contributes greatly to their ill health.  Whereas aquatic turtles are able to withstand high levels of various protozoans due to their constant exposure to water and thus ability to continually rehydrate themselves, terrestrials are not so fortunate and may also be evolutionarily at risk when exposed to these organisms. 

So while I would strongly encourage everyone in the World Chelonian Trust to become active in the Asian turtle crisis, please keep the above in mind.  Almost all of these wild caught Asian chelonia are in varying degrees of ill health and will require countless hours and vet bills in order to bring them around to eventually join a healthy breeding group. 

World Chelonian Trust

PO Box 1445

Vacaville, CA


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