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Struggling to survive in a sea of plastic:
Saving the Mediterranean’s turtles

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.

Your support helps injured turtles recover quickly and get back to a life in the ocean.

Make a difference and donate today

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

There is a huge need for training non-specialist vets, rehabilitators and volunteers who work with sick and injured turtles at CRAM and ARCHELON.

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 clinicaltraining and support, as well as advising on recuperative husbandry measures.For example, the level of UV that the turtles are exposed to needs to berelatively high and constant to avoid problems with calcification. Thetemperature of the tanks where the turtles are housed needs to be warm enoughto allow them to metabolise properly. If it’s too cold, they can’t process foodproperly and it starts to rot in their guts, while drugs can’t be properlyabsorbed.  Replicating a marineenvironment in terms of pressure and noise is difficult in a rehabilitationcentre, particularly when it is advisable for head wounds to be kept out of thewater 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.

CRAM

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.

ARCHELON

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.

Partners

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

Supporters

  • Mary Skilton

Essential first aid for injured birds

Thousands of birds, including species like the Critically Endangered white-backed vulture, Endangered Egyptian vulture and Sarus crane, suffer terrible injuries during Uttarayan and the International Kite-Flying Festival in the Gujarati city of Ahmadabad, India.

Birds are caught up in the cutting string, which is covered with crushed glass, causing severed wings and broken legs. Each January since 2013, WVI has sent specialist avian vet, Johanna Storm, to help a local animal welfare organisation, the Jivdaya Charitable Trust, treat thousands of affected birds. While she is there Johanna is also able to give invaluable hands-on training to local Indian vets.

Please donate to help us train local vets, introduce best practice pre and post surgery protocols to ensure that birds injured by kite strings have a real chance of survival.

Make a difference and donate today

Severed wings are common as birds fly through crowds of kites, while others become hopelessly tangled when trying to roost or nest and end up hanging upside down, facing a slow and painful death.

The story so far

Every January, the Indian state of Gujarat celebrates Uttarayan – the end of winter and the coming of spring – with displays of kite flying. The biggest event happens in the city of Ahmadabad. Here thousands take part in the spectacular International Kite-Flying Festival. Among the festivities, there are numerous kite-fighting events, where the objective is to bring down your opponent’s kite. For this, special string which has been coated with ground glass, or lethally tough but thin plastic string, is used. These fighter-kite lines are particularly dangerous for birds, thousands of which are killed or injured each year. Typically, birds flying through fields of kites are cut by the strings, which most often partially sever wings. Many die of shock following injury.

In addition, all kinds of kites and strings get entangled in trees and other places and cause problems for birds for months afterwards. The legs and wings of birds that roost, nest or simply fly past can become entangled, leaving animals hanging upside down and often facing a slow and miserable death.

Pigeons are the most commonly affected bird (with 1400 casualties in 2013), but owls, waterfowl, and, ironically, kites are also involved. Over 600 birds of prey have been recorded among the casualties, including the Critically Endangered white-backed vulture and the Endangered Egyptian vulture. The black kite is one of the most commonly injured birds of prey, while the Vulnerable Sarus crane is also known to be a victim.

Local animal welfare charity, the Jivdaya Charitable Trust (www.jivdaya.org), sets up rescue camps around the city and runs a makeshift surgery for injured birds during the festival but struggles to cope with the high numbers and severity of injuries. Indian vets have little training in avian medicine and none in non-domestic species. JCT invited WVI to help with the latter.

WVI sent out our specialist avian surgeon, Johanna Storm. She has provided surgical and post-operative expertise, training local vets in the process, since 2012. Although Johanna wasn’t able to be there herself for the 2016 clinic, WVI sent two veterinary nurses to help local staff.

The temporary clinic is very effectively run by the Jivdaya Charitable Trust. Birds are brought in by the public or by mobile ambulance from the rescue camps around the city. They are checked in and a sock is put over their head to calm them.

WVI introduced the giving of subcutaneous fluids at this point as the birds often arrive very dehydrated. Hydration starts the birds on to the road to recovery and enables them to cope with surgery much better.

The birds are put in labelled baskets, with their admission notes close by, and await surgery. Following treatment, they are wrapped in towels while recovering from anaesthesia, and then moved into small animal crates or special aviaries to recuperate. The aim is then to release them back into the wild.

Nevertheless, survival rates could be significantly improved further, particularly for birds of prey, and training of JCT staff and volunteers is vital to achieving this goal.

The challenge so far

Every year, thousands of birds are brought to the Jivdaya Charitable Trust’s makeshift surgical centre, which runs for several weeks in January, to coincide with the International Kite-Flying Festival. Typically, 1000 birds are seen in a week. Some mammals are also usually among the casualties.

During her visits, WVI vet, Johanna Storm, has been struck both by the number of birds requiring treatment and the severity of their injuries. At the same time, she has been enormously impressed by the dedication and professionalism of the staff and volunteers of the Jivdaya Charitable Trust.

However, Indian vets don’t tend to specialise in particular species, and there is little training in wildlife medicine. The result is that there are no local bird specialists available to perform surgery and treatment. Apart from the need for training in surgical techniques, better understanding of post-operative care and the development of more suitable facilities are now essential if the survival rate for birds in the future is to improve. (In 2012, the survival rate of non-pigeons treated by the centre was 71%, in 2015 it was 97%.)

This is particularly critical for birds of prey and the larger waterfowl, like pelicans, who have had successful surgery but need careful rehabilitation if they are to survive back in the wild.

What WVI is doing to help

In 2013, 2014 and 2015 we sent WVI vet and avian specialist, Johanna Storm, to help with the Jivdaya Charitable Trust’s temporary clinic during the Ahmadabad International Kite-Flying Festival. Each year Johanna shared her considerable surgical expertise and helped with post-operative care for the thousands of birds coming through the door of the clinic. Although Johanna wasn’t able to attend herself in 2016, WVI sent two veterinary nurses who were able to carry on her work.

WVI considers training and empowering local vets to be absolutely essential and we do this as an integral part of our visits. In 2014, for example, Johanna Storm helped with on-the-job training of around ten local vets during her time with the Jivdaya Charitable Trust. Other helpers also benefit from her expertise – in 2013 for instance these included 25 veterinary students, several human doctors and surgeons, and a further 50 non-medical volunteers.

WVI wants to see an improvement in the overall survival rates of birds brought into the clinic. We have a special interest in birds of prey and waterfowl, where the survival rate is not as high as it could be. The overall survival rate in 2012 was 66% and 71% in 2013. In 2013, 1005 birds of prey survived surgery.

At the moment, our particular focus is on looking at ways of helping the Jivdaya Charitable Trust improve post-operative care for the birds treated at the centre. Good post-operative care is key to getting birds fit and well enough to be released. One area we are presently concerned with is improving the aviaries into which the injured birds are released for rehabilitation.

What progress is being made

Over the last few years, WVI avian specialist, Johanna Storm, has not only helped with surgery and post-operative care for thousands of birds during her annual visits to the Jivdaya Charitable Trust’s temporary clinic, but in the process has given dozens of local vets and volunteers on-the-job training in relevant techniques.

Johanna has helped improve protocols and procedures for dealing with the birds, through triage, surgery, recovery and rehabilitation. She has advised on rehabilitation facilities, with a particular emphasis on how endangered species are treated, and has been able to transport and demonstrate essential equipment.

Johanna has also provided advice on nutrition. Many of the birds will not have eaten or drunk for a long time before being brought in. Their strength is very low and correct nutrition is vital to their recovery. Fresh meat isn’t an option locally for religious reasons, so Johanna has usually taken a few alternatives with her.

Two veterinary nurses sent out by WVI in 2016 were able to report back on considerable improvements in procedures thanks to Johanna’s previous work.

Ahmadabad is just one of many cities across Gujarat to hold such kite-flying festivals.

WVI hopes that the help we have been able to give will be shared with those tackling similar problems in the other kite-flying centres of Gujarat. We believe that by providing training and expertise, WVI is helping to fill a gap in avian veterinary expertise which currently exists across the Indian subcontinent.

Partners in the Field

WVI is extremely grateful to the corporate supporters who have given us quality specialist equipment and made our presence on the ground more effective as a result:

We are also extremely grateful to the Jean Sainsbury Animal Welfare Fund for awarding us grants in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

WVI’s role

WVI’s over all aim is to improve the overall survival rates of birds that are brought in (overall 66% in 2012, 71% in 2013), and in particular the birds of prey which was improved to 1005 surviving surgery.

In January 2013 the following companies donated equipment:

Financial contributions came from The Jean Sainsbury Animal Welfare Fund and from the many individuals who bought raffle tickets.

In 2014, Johanna aims to improve the post operative care which is key to getting the birds as well and strong as possible before they are released.The birds will not have eaten or drunk for a long time before being brought. Their strength will be very low and nutrition is key during this phaseof recovery. Fresh meat is not available on site for religious reasons so Johanna has taken a few alternatives with her.

As well as improving protocols in dealing with these birds, on the job surgery and treatment training, WVI vet, Johnanna, will advise on how to improve Jivdaya Charitable Trust’s rehabilitation facilities for birds, particularly the more unusual (endangered) species.

Expert WVI contribution and ongoing support is the first step towards filling a gap in avian expertise across the Indian continent.

" Saving some of the planet’s rarest creatures from extinction needs expert help, and WVI can supply that when and where it’s needed. "

Steve Leonard, Veterinary Surgeon and TV Presenter