Thursday, July 14, 2022
Thirty-four Southwest Florida native turtles, once caught up in international turtle smuggling operations, got a second chance and a new home this week — here at Naples Botanical Garden.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) have infiltrated major poaching rings in the past several years — including one operating out of Fort Myers — and confiscated hundreds of wild-caught turtles. They are coveted as pets and status symbols abroad, particularly in some Asian and European countries, where they fetch hundreds of dollars apiece.
Generally, it’s difficult to return rescued turtles to the wild because of disease concerns or the reptiles’ inability to forage, swim, and hide after being plucked from their habitats. But a collaboration involving FWC, a local biology professor, a turtle rehabilitation specialist, and the Garden allows for a happy ending.
“This is incredibly rare,” says Brad O’Hanlon, the FWC Reptile and Amphibian Conservation Coordinator. The rescued species include Florida mud turtles, musk turtles, and striped turtles that are believed to have been poached from the Southwest Florida area.
USFWS held the turtles as legal evidence, and once they had built their cases, collaborated with FWC to release them to Kim Titterington, founder of Swamp Girl Adventures Reptile Rehabilitation in Kissimmee. She monitored them for disease and made sure they could function on their own.
Once the turtles got the green light to return to a natural habitat, the FWC connected with Jordan Donini. He’s a biology professor at Florida SouthWestern State College and founder of the Southwest Florida Turtle Project, a long-term effort to gather information about native turtles’ population size, preferred habitat, behavioral characteristics, diet, reproduction, and other fundamentals.
“We just don’t have a lot of published data on their life history in some of these regions,” Donini says, referring to the southern half of the state. Through his monitoring Donini discovered, for example, native box turtles’ propensity for water — they submerge themselves for so long that algae grows on their shells. Conservation biologists collect such information to better understand and protect species and the habitats on which they depend.
Donini had been eyeing the Garden as a research site (his wife works here), and when FWC contacted him about the confiscated turtles, he reached out to the Garden asking to release and study them here.
The answer, of course, was “yes.”
“The great thing about this story is that we’re protecting plants and habitats, which in turn will protect wildlife,” says Eric Foht, the Garden’s Director of Natural Resources. The Garden includes 90 acres of natural Southwest Florida habitat, a miniature “River of Grass” replicating the Everglades ecosystem, and multiple waterbodies.
Working with the rescued turtles adds layers to Donini’s research. At the Garden, he and his students will study native turtles in general, looking to answer important biological basics. They will investigate how the recovered turtles compare with naturally occurring ones to discern behavioral or biological differences, which will provide information for future repatriation strategies. Finally, they’ll monitor the rescued turtles’ overall adaptation to their new habitat, a significant emerging question.
Donini and his students tagged them using microchips and/or a special coding system marked on their shells; they intend to teach Garden staff how to read those markings and chips so that we can contribute our observations. In addition, Donini and his students affixed transmitters to 14 rescued turtles to allow for radio monitoring. This will provide important information, including how far the turtles move from the release site.
“One of the big components of this study is looking at survival rates. There is literally zero data on how confiscated mud turtles do post release, so this is all novel information,” Donini says, as he releases one into a swampy area of the Garden. The data will guide future state decisions on the handling of poached turtles.
“If we make sure they are disease free before we release them so we don’t spread anything to the native turtles, can they survive? If they can, that’s going to open up a lot of doors for FWC and wildlife mangers to have options.”
Confiscated reptiles that are deemed healthy typically end up in zoos or private facilities. Those that carry diseases are humanely euthanized to avoid spreading illnesses in the wild, Donini explains.
O’Hanlon adds, “A lot of the time, we have to make the best decisions we can with limited information. This study will help broaden the information we can use in these tough situations.”
Donini and his students will monitor the turtles for about a year, which is the life expectancy for the transmitters. Titterington also intends to contribute data as FWC sends her confiscated turtles to screen for disease and rehabilitate.
The information is sorely needed. The problem with poaching is widespread and worsening. In 2009, the state responded to the illicit trade by making it illegal to sell wild-caught turtles. The clampdown does not appear to have deterred poachers. The 2019 Fort Myers case, the largest seizure of turtles in recent history, involved 4,000 turtles that were smuggled overseas.
“This is a major conservation crisis,” O’Hanlon says.
“When it comes down to it, these turtle smuggling rings are highly sophisticated,” O’Hanlon says. The black-market operations start with local poachers, who are paid roughly $5 to $10 per animal. The price rises each time the turtle changes hands, ultimately fetching $200 or more a piece by the time they reach overseas markets. “That’s because there’s a lot of risk every step of the way,” O’Hanlon explains. “To get a healthy turtle to the end of the market chain has a lot of people involved; we’re looking at every linkage to try to make a difference.”
You can help stop illegal turtle poaching by taking the following actions, according to FWC:
Report suspicious behavior. If you suspect someone is illegally collecting or selling wildlife, contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by phone (1.844.FWS.TIPS), email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or contact your state wildlife agency. The Service is authorized to pay rewards for information or assistance that leads to an arrest, criminal conviction, civil penalty assessment, or forfeiture of seized property.
Don’t share locations of wild turtles, especially online. It can be exciting to see turtles in the wild, and to share your discovery. But if you post a photo of a turtle on social media, don’t include information on where you found it. Turtle poachers mine the internet for this information and use it to target sites. If you want help identifying a turtle you saw in the wild, reach out to a local nature center or your state wildlife agency.
Before you buy, do your homework. Consider choosing a different type of animal to keep as a pet. Pet turtles require specialized care for decades, so be sure you are ready for the commitment. If you are, don’t shop, adopt. Check local shelters for unwanted turtles. If you buy, be a cautious consumer. Ask for certification that the turtle was captive bred.
About the Author
Jennifer Reed is the Garden’s Editorial Director and a longtime Southwest Florida journalist.