Entire SPECIES Found Piled In Shipping Crate

<p> Katala Foundation Inc.<span></span> </p>
<p> Katala Foundation Inc.<span></span> </p>

Last month, turtle experts thought there were fewer than 3,000 Philippine forest turtles left in the world. They were shocked when they found 3,800 more - stacked on top of each other in a cement tank in a Chinese-owned Philippine warehouse.

The thousands of turtles had no visible access to water, and a myriad of injuries and illnesses. Rick Hudson, president of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), said the discovery was "shocking" and "a nightmare" in an email to supporters.

"Injuries were obvious," he wrote. "Turtles were dying. There was chaos."

Of the 3,800 turtles, nearly 3,000 were released. The other thousand were held back for treatment for broken shells, skin problems, bone infections, dehydration and a number of other medical problems resulting from captivity.

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The rescued turtles have been helped by a rush of support from turtle groups around the world, TSA among them. But these same groups worry about the bigger questions raised by this discovery, both about the already-threatened wild populations and Asia's increasing appetite for turtles.

The Philippine forest turtle was something of a myth for much of the twentieth century, its existence known from a meager four specimens that had been found over the decades. But it was rediscovered in 2004, when a small population was found living in Palawan, an island province of the Philippines.

Unfortunately, while the species' reemergence was a boon to conservationists, it was also an invitation to poachers. "When that species was rediscovered it set off a collecting frenzy," Hudson told The Dodo, adding that the turtles can fetch a huge price on the international market due to their rarity.

These rescued turtles, which were all wild-caught, had been snatched from their forest homes by an organized syndicate of poachers. "Due to the fact that some of them were so emaciated and in such bad shape, we suspect that some of them were there for up to six months," Hudson said, adding that they were headed for turtle farms in China.

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"The Chinese are trying to farm any species of turtle they can get their hands on," he said, explaining that growing demand means turtles from all over the world are being sent to China to be bred for the exotic pet trade or for meat. The Philippine forest turtles were probably going to be bred for collectors since they're simply too valuable to kill for meat.

While a few hundred turtles died in the days after the rescue, the death toll would have been more significant if the Philippine forest turtles had been shipped off. They only thrive in their natural home - a far cry from the cramped and stressful conditions of turtle farms.

"This species does very poorly in captivity under the best of conditions," Hudson explained. A big problem is that they're solitary and, quite simply, "they don't want to be with another turtle," which can lead to fighting and general stress.

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And in a species that's so rare, the death of even a few is significant - which is why Hudson described the discovery as "a nightmare" in his email.

The Philippine forest turtles aren't alone. Millions of turtles die each year to meet Chinese demand, with countries like Vietnam - and the U.S. - having depleted native populations to send them abroad. And 75 percent of Asia's freshwater turtle and tortoise species are threatened, according to National Geographic.

But those are bigger questions, and for the time being everyone's focused on treating the rescued turtles who need help after their brutal treatment. "Some of these have been handled very roughly," Hudson said. "They've been tossed around, they have cracked shells."

Volunteers worked with the Palawan Wildlife Rescue Center to create a turtle habitat, repurposing old crocodile enclosures into turtle-friendly havens complete with shade, big ponds and fresh food.

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And the weeks of hard work seem to have paid off. Of the original thousand or so held back for treatment, only 246 remained in intensive care as of earlier this week. But while those numbers are small compared to the original intake, every last individual is crucially important.

"It's still ranked as critically endangered," Hudson said of the species. "So we have to take precautions to save as many as we can."

If you'd like to help protect these turtles and others like them, you can donate to the Turtle Survival Alliance here.