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Tough but fragile, turtles take to Italian hospital

August 20, 2005

By Robin Pomeroy

LAMPEDUSA, Italy (Reuters) – The island hospital is small,
sparsely equipped and very often the patients are so large that
they have to be tipped sideways to get them to the operating
table.

Fortunately, the patients are tough enough to withstand
being knocked against a doorframe — they are protected by a
solid shell bigger than a manhole cover.

It takes more than rough handling to kill off a loggerhead
turtle.

Tough they may be, but the species is endangered because of
the destruction of its breeding grounds — the once isolated
beaches which are increasingly built-up and disturbed — and
the fishing fleets that catch or drown them by mistake.

Only a couple of turtles now come each year to lay eggs on
Lampedusa, Italy’s most southerly island. But hundreds more are
found injured in the area and the lucky ones make it to the
turtle hospital to be cured and studied by volunteer vets and
curious zoologists.

“They are not physically beautiful,” says Daniela Freggi
who established the WWF (the former World Wildlife Fund) turtle
sanctuary in the 1990s after previously having worked with
dolphins.

“At first, turtles weren’t interesting. They didn’t laugh,
they didn’t talk.” But Freggi grew to be fascinated by the
carnivores which can live their solitary lives to be from 50 to
100 years old and migrate thousands of miles through the
oceans.

“They live for years, they don’t get on with each other,
they can withstand huge injuries and then die for nothing.”

ONE EYE GONE

The turtle refuge is temporary home to up to 500 turtles
each year. They are kept in a collection of large tanks in the
grounds of a former pizzeria, shaded by date palms.

Most of the injured animals have been caught by baited
fishing lines which were meant to snare swordfish or tuna.

If the hooks — which can be up to five cm (two inches)
long — are stuck in the head, they are removed. If the turtle
has swallowed the hook, it may pass through the animal’s
digestive tract or it might have to be cut out by a surgeon.

Freggi and a couple of young volunteers heave one of the
patients out of its tank, spraying water in a wide arc.

“This one was here four years ago,” Freggi says, pointing
to the metal identification tag which hospital staff always
attach to a fin before releasing the animals back into the sea.

Since its last visit, the turtle’s shell has grown 15 cm
(six inches) to be 55 cm (22 inches) long, but its right eye
has been gouged out, probably by a fishing hook which has left
a long scar across the leathery skin of its face.

The assistants — biology students doing a summer
internship — pull a turtle out of a neighboring tank. From its
anus protrudes a knotted strand of yellow nylon cord — the end
of an estimated five meters (16 feet five inches) of fishing
line it has swallowed.

“Ninety-nine percent of deaths are caused by the nylon —
it blocks up into a clump inside and kills them,” says Freggi
as she gently pulls at the cord. “We have to be careful not to
cut it up,” she said.

AMBASSADORS

Michael White, a marine zoologist from Ireland’s Cork
University, has taken up residence at the turtle refuge as it
provides him a unique view of the animals which are only
usually seen when mature females crawl onto beaches to lay
eggs.

“These are enigmatic, mysterious animals.

“We know pretty much every nesting beach on the planet but
we don’t know where they are for 90 percent of their lives.
That’s why I am here.

“Ninety percent of research is done on the beaches, that
means it’s always females that are 40 to 50 years old. All of
these here are juveniles.”

White is fascinated by the turtles’ behavior patterns from
when they hatch from eggs just 2.5 cm (one inch) long, through
thousands of miles of migrations guided by a homing
pigeon-style sense of the earth’s magnetic field.

He studies the animals in their tanks and dives with them
in the sea. He has also tracked them using electronic tags.

“They used to be tracked by attaching a helium balloon to
them and following it by boat. Now we use satellite trackers.”

Aside from the medical treatment and scientific research,
the refuge has a third role — to spark public interest in the
fragile species threatened by beach development and certain
fishing practices.

“They are ambassadors for their species,” says Freggi.
While the public’s love for “cuddly” dolphins has led to
changes in fishing practices, she hopes greater awareness of
turtles will afford them greater respect and protection.

“I see people approach them here and say: ‘How beautiful’
and I wonder why it took me so long to see them like that.”




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