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SERVICES 
Saturday, 29 December, 2001, 00:10 GMT
Race to airlift dying turtles
An endangered tropical Malaysian giant turtle in a pig-pen in Hong Kong
Sick and cold: 6,000 turtles still need rescuing
Conservationists are battling against time to airlift hundreds of sick endangered turtles saved from China's illegal meat trade to a Miami treatment centre.

More than 1,000 of about 10,000 turtles seized by customs officials in Hong Kong over two weeks ago have already died of dehydration, cold or injuries suffered as they were shipped from Singapore and Thailand to mainland China.

The surviving turtles are too ill to be released into the wild, but the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong where they have been kept until now cannot cope with such large numbers long-term.

An endangered tropical Malaysian giant turtle in a pig-pen in Hong Kong
Over 1,000 turtles have already died
"It's getting too cold, many are injured and we don't have the medical expertise to rescue so many. I am afraid many will die if they don't get proper help soon," said a spokeswoman, Idy Wong.

Some tropical turtles are currently living in open pig-pens with temperatures falling below 7C.

About 450 turtles were given free passage on United Airlines flights on Thursday and Friday to the Alapattah Flats Turtle Preserve in Port St Lucie in Miami.

Now Ms Wong is appealing for cargo space to transport 6,000 remaining turtles.

The turtles which have arrived in Miami will be treated and catalogued, before being found new homes by the Turtle Survival Alliance, the animal rights group which has organised the operation.

Meat trade

"The species we're working with, under the best of circumstances, have a heavy mortality rate, so we're not sure how things are going to look tomorrow morning," said the head vet for the rescue mission, Barbara Bonner.

Tropical black marsh turtles at the Hong Kong centre
The Hong Kong centre does not have enough space
The consignment of 10,000 turtles, 90% of which are classed as "critical", "endangered", or "vulnerable" species, was estimated to be worth $3.2m.

It included some of the most endangered species in the world, such as the river terrapin, Asian brown turtle, painted terrapin, box turtle and the black marsh turtle.

The reptiles were destined for dining tables in China, where demand is so high that local populations have been exhausted and importers look to countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh to meet demand.

Conservationists say the animals were travelling in appalling conditions, stacked in styrofoam and cardboard boxes, with the creatures at the bottom of the crates supporting the weight of thousands of others above.

"When we opened up the boxes, turtles at the bottom of the pile were completely smashed," said Ms Wong.

See also:

03 Dec 01 | England
Rescuers help turtle in a stew
13 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
World's turtles 'still under threat'
04 Dec 99 | Asia-Pacific
Asian turtle crisis
27 Aug 99 | Sci/Tech
Turtles in the soup
10 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
Vanishing reptiles prompt concern
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