How much do you know about our Wild Work? As a not-for-profit conservation organisation, Auckland Zoo is committed to safeguarding our beautiful planet, all of its remarkable species, and spectacular landscapes for generations to come. We bring you #Wildwork Wednesday to show you some remarkable people, undertaking extraordinary work in NZ and abroad.

Freedom so close, they must almost be able to taste it. Flipped right-side up by their rescuers, turtles scramble excitedly towards the river. It’s the end of a difficult but vital journey to return them to the wild. The Sultanpur Division of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) is fighting a battle to save illegally poached tortoises and freshwater turtles in the north of India and safeguard their populations, before it’s too late. Every year in the Indian winter, as the turtles and tortoises hibernate, poachers come. One species, the strange looking Indian flapshell turtle (Lissemys punctata), is of significant concern, as it’s been the most heavily hit by the black market turtle trade

In 2017 Indian police caught poachers transporting 5 tons of this turtle, destined to be killed for use in traditional medicine in East Asia. But the TSA, with funding from Auckland Zoo, was prepared for this year’s poaching peak.

Given the scale of the problem, preparations began early. Forest staff from local districts were offered a turtle-training workshop run by the TSA, where groups would learn turtle identification, primary care, and the complexities of building a legal case against poachers. For these workshops the TSA also translated the Indian Wildlife Protection Act into local Hindi and funded wet weather jackets to make patrolling easier. The first of these workshops was opened by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (UPFWD) (Wildlife) Uttar Pradesh, and they were well received by the officers attending! Building these relationships is invaluable for conservation, and has already paid off, with staff who attended these workshops making a number of confiscations of trafficked turtles and tortoises later in the year.

While they were in the area for a workshop, the TSA team also visited a town known as a local turtle poaching hotspot. This might seem strange, but it was for a good reason. “The team spoke to community members and discussed the issues they have been facing and possible solutions to find some alternative livelihood options”, reports Dr Shailendra Singh, Director of Turtle Survival Alliance in India. These communities where poaching is a significant activity do it because of a lack of other options. They’re just trying to feed their families, any way they can. It’s a long term goal, but the TSA hopes to rehabilitate communities like this one, by finding ways for turtles and people to live in peace.

The TSA also ramped up the non-enforcement side of turtle and tortoise rescue this year, preparing a mobile rescue unit. Their ranks included a veterinarian, a former officer with over 30 years experience in reptile care, TSA’s Ex-situ Conservation coordinator and two project biologists. Kitted out with all the essentials, when poaching season began they were called in to help police and forest staff. “A total of 2800 turtles comprising three species: Indian flapshell turtle (Lissemys punctata), spotted pond turtle (Geoclemys hamiltonii) and the Indian roofed turtle (Pangshura tecta) were provided with triage” says Dr Singh. Triage for a turtle is a process that begins with warming these cold blooded animals back up, in lukewarm water that won’t shock them. Then they were given little hiding spots to allow them to destress after their ordeal and recover a little. From there the team sorted them by health and size, with healthy turtles going straight into quarantine in a semi-natural environment (as per IUCN guidelines). Sick turtles were treated for wounds or illness, and after 30 days of health checks, could join their fellows in quarantine. This intervention process and the new mobile rescue team has reduced mortality by 40%!

The rescue unit then helped authorities find safe release sites for the turtles. After a long journey, both for the turtles that have been saved and the biologists and police that have invested so much into saving them, below is the video showing the moment that TSA volunteers released these turtles back to the wild world they were almost taken from forever. Every time you visit the zoo, you support work like this all around the world, where passionate people act as kaitiaki, guarding their natural taonga (treasure) species.

Here in the zoo we have our own treasured turtles. If you’d like to meet our Eastern snake-necked turtles, either head to our Australian aviary, or watch this video where ectotherm keeper Seth tells us about these long-lived and long-necked turtles. Or, if you’re visiting our New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine (NZCCM), you might be lucky enough to see our vets treating sea turtles from the wild. We’re a proud member of the Turtle Rescue Team with our partners Sea Life Kelly Tarlton’s, the Department of Conservation and Air New Zealand who facilitate this conservation work by flying sick and injured sea turtles to the Auckland Zoo Vet Hospital to be treated by our vet team. Any turtles that survive will go on to be rehabilitated at Kelly Tarlton’s before being released back into the wild.

Every zoo visit you make helps us to continue our conservation work inside and outside of the zoo, so thank you for helping to save wildlife and wild places.