Hands-on Help for Temple Turtles. Bangkok, Thailand.

Veterinarians from Chulalongkorn University conducting parasite removal from a temple turtle.

Veterinarians and volunteers come together to help rescue and relocate the turtles of a local temple.

The murky ponds and waterways of Wat Bowonniwet Vihara (Wat Bowon), a temple within shouting distance of my place, are home to many varieties of freshwater turtle, terrapin, carp and catfish. The serene, whitewashed temple grounds of Wat Bowonniwet function as a shortcut through to the local markets at weekends, avoiding the noisy two-stroke bikes and tuk-tuks that ply their trade outside harassing walkers for a lift.

The turtle ponds are a popular attraction but provide little that resembles their natural habitat, they become quickly become crowded, relying on generous locals to feed them. Here was an opportunity to ensure they returned to the national parks of Thailand, free of disease.

UNESCO Bangkok was recently invited by Veterinarians from Chulalongkorn University to assist Dr. Nantarika, Director of the Veterinary Medical Aquatic Animal Research Center at Chulalongkorn University and founder of Bangkok’s Love Turtle Club in the rehabilitation of the turtles.

She proposed: “We would like to see animals live happily and we would like to see the people who have great minds caring for other lives”.

Thais believe that freeing a turtle – renowned for its longevity – will also pass on this long life to the person making merit from their release.

Golden window frames adorn the main ‘bot’ at Wat Bowon.

BEFORE: Turtle pond showing resting ramps provided by the Wat.

Unfortunately, reality dictates that turtles are caught, whether from the wild or from other ponds and sold to well-meaning locals who promptly release them into inferior water or even re-sell the turtles, now caught in a cyclical buy and sell. A decline continues and the turtle ultimately dies of infection, dehydration, and starvation.

The sale and purchase of all native Thai freshwater turtle and tortoise species is illegal so many people will attempt to relocate ‘found’ turtles to a temple pond as a sort of ‘resting place’.

I found it astounding that anything could live in these waterways considering most were built as sewage systems. The high walls around the pond make inappropriate habitats. The monks helped alleviate this problem to some extent by providing ramps for the turtles and feed them vegetables but the danger of contaminated food sources add to the predicament.

STAGE 1: Ponds are netted to catch the turtles and the water drained. Large quantities of mud from the floor will be removed.

There are a variety of species threatened by this behaviour. These include: Yellow Headed Temple Turtle, Malayan Snail Eating Turtle, Black Pond Terrapin, Asian Box Turtle, Inspecific soft-shell turtle and the introduced Red-eared Slider (Japan).

All hands on deck… let the fun begin.

STAGE 2: Cleaning the shell and body with sponges and toothbrushes. Not surprisingly, the turtle attempts to defend itself.

To help in the rehabilitation of turtles along with the ‘LoveTurtle’ organisation, I photographed the event and lent a helping hand, lifting the critters weighing from between 500 grams up to the largest at around 30kg, so the cleaners could get their toothbrushes into tricky turtle territory.

The larger males have strong claws, leaving my surgical gloves in shreds but my hands intact. Considering the estimated number of turtles to get through was up to a 100 we were in for a long day, but a sharing the fun made light of the effort involved.

STAGE 3: Weighing and measuring.

STAGE 4: Health Assessment: Giving medicine, removing leeches and other parasites.

Intensive care.

So what happens to the turtles after all this effort? Dr Natarika provided us with the following:

‘In order to rescue these temple turtles and conserve the species native to Thailand, a team of veterinarians and volunteers will be working to perform health assessments and treatments before release into the wild. National parks are ideal release points both for their safety and more natural setting. Healthy animals are divided into native and exotic freshwater turtle species. The exotic species, such as, Red-eared sliders, are sent to the fishery department for care in captivity. Turtles in need of continued treatment are sent to the Veterinary Aquatic Animal Research Center, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, for necessary veterinary care. Native freshwater and soft-shell species are quarantined in a clean water pool and tagged with microchips before release in National parks.’

Malayan snail-eating turtle.

STAGE 5: Grouping before relocation.

Lets hope the practice of merit-making takes a turn for the better, helping people understand that a more meaningful merit comes through educating the populace in the proper treatment and therefore prosperity of these gentle creatures.

Inviting local volunteers to learn through participation in a professional clean is a great way of passing on the message.

UNESCO interns participate in the rescue.

Associate Professor Dr. Nantarika Chansue
Press Release

UNESCO Bangkok

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara

For re-use of any of these images or story content, please contact Warren at: wazzafield@hotmail.com

You can register on my photolibrary: http://www.warrenfield.photomerchant.net to request access to the full shoot.

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Taken on Olympus E-System SLR, Flash and Zuiko lenses.

© Warren Field 2012


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