WVI is training vets in Greece and Spain to help save sick and injured turtles. The animals are victims of plastic pollution and other human activities.
The Mediterranean Sea is a global hotspot for plastic pollution. It’s also home to three threatened turtle species – the Endangered green turtle, the Vulnerable loggerhead turtle and the Vulnerable leatherback turtle. Getting entangled in plastic, or accidentally eating it, is an everyday risk for these animals. And the consequences can be painful, long lasting and sometimes fatal.
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The Story So Far
Training Vets. Saving Turtles
The Mediterranean is full of plastic. The turtles who live there eat it and get entangled in it. Like all marine turtle species, however, the Mediterranean’s turtles are threatened not just by plastic pollution, but also by more general habitat degradation and loss, as well as malicious attacks by fishermen. In addition, they risk being struck by boats – often carrying tourists – or being accidentally caught in fishing nets. This all results in a wide range of injuries to the heads, limbs and shells of turtles, in addition to the problems caused by ingested plastic which can block and damage their guts and even affect their buoyancy.
WVI is providing training, practical advice and support to two Mediterranean sealife rescue centres in Greece and Spain. The aim is to support advances in the treatment, survival and successful rehabilitation of the Mediterranean’s sick and injured turtles. The CRAM Foundation for the Conservation and Rehabilitation of Marine Animals is located in Barcelona, Spain and the ARCHELON Sea Turtle Rescue Centre is in Athens, Greece.
The visiting vet teams help train local staff and volunteers, who often have little previous knowledge of reptile medicine, in general turtle care, wound management, pain relief, anaesthesia, rehydration techniques, physiotherapy and effective nutrition. In addition, they demonstrate the taking and analysing of blood samples to aid diagnosis as well as how to correctly interpret X-rays.
By working together with local staff we can significantly improve the care and treatment of rescued turtles, in order to increase their chances of successful release back into the wild.
Our work with rescue centres in the Mediterranean follows on from our project with the Marine Conservation Society, Seychelles. We have been supporting the work of MCSS for several years, having initially helped them acquire X-ray and anaesthetic equipment. WVI provided training in the use of the equipment, and we continue to give support and expert opinion whenever they encounter an unusual or difficult case. The centre is running very smoothly now, but the X-ray machine is due for a service and we need to raise £1,000 in order to send specialists out to do this. Please click here if you would like to donate to help this happen
The Problem Today
The Need for Specialist Support
Turtles have a very unique and ancient biology, and live in habitats very different to those the centres can provide, leading to some very specific husbandry and veterinary needs.
Often the vets who work at the centres will not themselves be reptile experts but are likely to be small animal vets who are happy to help out. Much of the day-to-day medical care falls to centre managers who are more likely to be biologists by training. Resources for permanent reptile experts are usually scarce.
This is where WVI can help.
An estimated quarter of the turtles arriving at the ARCHELON Rescue Centre in Greece are suffering from plastic ingestion or the consequence of collisions with boats. Another quarter will be victims of entanglement, having become caught up in fishing gear or other debris, which sometimes results in amputations.
Remaining victims will typically have been injured through the deliberate actions of humans. There is a small section of the fishing community who feel they are in competition with turtles, which can damage their nets. They will attack turtles they feel threaten their catch, often leading to serious head wounds, which can even leave the brain exposed.
Although they may not show any clinical symptoms, all of the turtles coming into the centre will have plastics in their guts. Click here for more information on the problems that plastics cause.
There are a number of areas where WVI can help with clinical training and support, as well as advising on recuperative husbandry measures.For example, the level of UV that the turtles are exposed to needs to be relatively high and constant to avoid problems with calcification. The temperature of the tanks where the turtles are housed needs to be warm enough to allow them to metabolise properly. If it’s too cold, they can’t process food properly and it starts to rot in their guts, while drugs can’t be properly absorbed. Replicating a marine environment in terms of pressure and noise is difficult in a rehabilitation centre, particularly when it is advisable for head wounds to be kept out of the water initially.
If you’d like to know more about just how turtles are affected by plastic in our oceans you can read our background briefing document here.
What WVI is doing to help
By working in partnership to train and support the staff of two flagship turtle rescue centres in the Mediterranean, WVI is helping build local expert capacity. This in turn improves the welfare of turtles in the care of the centres, and significantly increases the likelihood of recovery and successful release back into the wild – ultimately improving the chances of survival for these threatened turtle species.
Marine specialist vet Tania Monreal makes regular monthly visits to CRAM in Barcelona, where she provides expert veterinary training and advice to staff, students and volunteers. The centre is responsible for the rescue and rehabilitation of a high number of green turtles, which are typically victims of plastic pollution, toxic waste or accidental capture by fishing boats.
CRAM also cares for sea birds, dolphins and whales which have become stranded on the Catalan coast. The animals treated by CRAM are often suffering from severe injuries and illnesses, most of which are a result of human activity.
The centre has to deal with a huge range of difficult and challenging cases and Tania’s experience is invaluable in helping staff treat turtles and other animals successfully, gaining valuable practical knowledge in the process. Aside from giving on-the-job training, Tania is available to give advice remotely, and has already produced a series of ‘How To’ videos. She is also helping with the on-going development of protocols tailored to the particular needs and specifics of species, the available facilities and the experience of staff.
Turtles which are accidentally caught by fishing boats and brought abruptly to the surface can suffer from decompression sickness and CRAM now has a decompression chamber to help combat the problem, which can also be seen in dolphins.
Turtles can also drown. Although some species can stay underwater for many hours at a time, they do need to breathe. Drowning is most likely as a result of being caught in discarded fishing gear or other plastic waste and being unable to return to the surface. At CRAM drowned turtles are treated with acupuncture as well as more conventional techniques to remove fluid from the lungs.
In 2019 marine specialist vet Tania Monreal and veterinary nurse Matt Rendle began making regular trips to train and advise the permanent staff of the ARCHELON Rescue Centre, as part of a new partnership between WVI and
ARCHELON The Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece. The Rescue Centre is situated on the coast of the Aegean Sea, in Athens’ southern suburb of Glyfada.
Our work with ARCHELON is focused on providing several days of face-to-face training on a regular basis, augmented with on-going remote support, to the Rescue Centre team. By helping build the confidence of the local team in handling the more straightforward cases so that turtles can pass through the centre more quickly, we hope that support can then be reduced to providing help with just the more technically complex cases.
Turtles are very resilient and can survive serious injury. However without optimal care their recovery can be very slow and they don’t get returned to the sea as fast as they could.
As a specialist in the care, rehabilitation and conservation of marine and aquatic animals, Tania has been giving training on appropriate veterinary protocols and techniques. Matt has been sharing his expertise in wound care and healing, as well as in exotic anaesthesia.
Practical clinical training has focused on anaesthetic and resuscitation techniques This has included the correct use of an AMBU bag for victims of suspected drowning and how to use local anaesthetic when debriding wounds – cutting away dead or diseased tissue in order to promote healing. They have also helped volunteers learn how to take blood and test for possible infection, and shown staff how they can get better use out of their existing equipment.
A visit to a local medical centre has allowed Matt and Tania to demonstrate how to correctly X-ray a turtle and how to get the most from the resulting images. Matt has also been able to demonstrate how to give a turtle effective physiotherapy!
Diet is important in the recovery of malnourished and debilitated turtles. Matt and Tania have helped the centre improve the nutrient basis of the diet they offer through the use of supplements and Lafeber’s Emeraid Critical Care. Emeraid in particular offers a highly digestible and balanced source of nutrition, which includes fluids. It can be given to turtles after surgery as well as to severely depleted individuals when they arrive at the centre, and can be a major boost to recovery while requiring minimal effort to prepare.
All of this shared expertise goes towards ensuring that the loggerhead turtles coming into the centre are given the best care possible in order to speed up their recovery and increase their chances of successful release back into the wild.
What Progress isbeing made?
Since cooperation with WVI began in early 2019, turtles at the ARCHELON
rescue centre have benefited from better pain relief, improved nutrition and faster wound healing. This in turn is leading to quicker improvements in their overall health. The ARCHELON Rescue Centre is the only one of its kind in Greece and treats sick and injured turtles from around the country
ARCHELON has played a crucial role in the recovery of the Mediterranean’s loggerhead turtle population, which has gone from being Critically Endangered to being a species of Least Concern in the IUCN ratings for risk of extinction. (The rating for the global population of the loggerhead turtle is Vulnerable.)
ARCHELON estimates that, if it were to stop its current activities, the Mediterranean’s loggerhead turtles could become Near Threatened in as little as five years. It is generally acknowledged that the recovery of the population is entirely thanks to, and dependent on, intensive conservation work and WVI is committed to helping further these efforts to ensure the future of the loggerhead.
At CRAM in Barcelona, all the turtles released back into the Mediterranean are tagged and some have transmitters to allow their progress to be monitored. One turtle was successfully released despite having only three flippers, following amputation and a decade in captivity, and was then tracked passing through the strong currents of the Straits of Gibraltar before crossing the Atlantic. Ten months after release, signals were still being received from the turtle. This just proves how good husbandry, veterinary care and planning can mean even the most challenging of cases can be released with a good chance of survival. Read Tania’s paper which contains full details of this remarkable story here.
WVI’s work in the Mediterranean builds on our previous cooperation with the Marine Conservation Society of the Seychelles. Read more about this project
here. The MCSS rescue centre in Mahé is now very self-sufficient, although WVI veterinary specialists remain available to advise on particularly difficult or unusual cases.
This project would not be possible without the work our Partners in the Field do throughout the year nor the financial support we get from many organisations and individuals.
WVI would like to thank all of them:
Partners in the field
- CRAM Foundation for the Conservation and Rehabilitation of Marine Animals
- ARCHELON Sea Turtle Rescue Centre
- International Zoo Veterinary Group (IZVG)
- Mary Skilton