Researchers plan to euthanise turtles from the Cayman Turtle Farm after experiments are completed
Animal rights activists in Canada are campaigning to stop the University of British Columbia from killing seven green sea turtles that were shipped to the university from the Cayman Turtle Farm.
The turtles are among 16 of the animals sent to Canada from Cayman for research purposes in 1998 and in 2003.
Brian Vincent of the Stop UBC Animal Research group said his organisation was tipped off by a whistleblower within the university that the turtles would be killed once experiments on them were completed this spring.
“While the world undertakes heroic efforts to save endangered sea turtles, it is shocking UBC is plotting to kill one of the most imperilled animals on Earth,” said Mr. Vincent.
The export of turtles from Cayman is strictly regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES. The green sea turtle is listed as endangered by CITES and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Mr. Vincent said the CITES permit under which these turtles were exported mentioned only research purposes. “The turtles have been experimented on for more than 10 years. They are about to do major surgery on them and then kill them all. I’ve looked at the CITES permit; nowhere in the permit does it say the turtles will be killed,” he said.
He added: “My hunch is that the Cayman Turtle Farm has no idea these animals were going to be experimented on so extensively and, secondly, had no idea they would be killed.”
However, Mr. Vincent admitted that he had assumed the Cayman Turtle Farm was a “sanctuary for turtles” and he had been unaware that the farm also raised turtles for their meat.
Bill Milsom, head of the University of British Columbia’s zoology department, in an email to the Caymanian Compass, said the seven turtles would be killed in order to complete a study into turtle diving depths. The study was designed to examine the effects of temperature on turtles’ physiology and performance.
“These turtles have participated in several experiments… Specifically, the researchers involved in this work have been interested in the capacity of these animals for performing long deep dives and long migrations. The questions being asked pertain to developing an understanding of their foraging ecology, their range distribution and importantly, their ability to survive periods of entrapment in fishing nets.
“The latter are occurring more frequently as the range of this species increases due to global warming. So little is known about the physiology of these animals and this information is essential if we are to more effectively and intelligently inform fishing policies and to aid conservation management,” Mr. Milsom said.
He said that an estimated 85,000 sea turtles had been killed as a result of being trapped in deep nets between 1990 and 2003.
Mr. Milsom said half of the 16 turtles received from Grand Cayman had been “retired” to public aquaria, and the remaining turtles were required for ongoing experiments.
“It is essential that we complete these to validate our data. The number remaining are the minimum number deemed necessary to collect valid data. These experiments are of necessity, terminal. Also, after the experiments are complete, tissues will be harvested for a variety of associated studies.
“We have gone to great lengths to involve the international community in this process to ensure that maximum benefit is obtained from the studies. As a result, however, these animals are not available to go to aquaria,” he said.
Mr. Milsom told the Vancouver Sun newspaper that at the end of the surgery and measurements, anaesthesia would be increased until the turtles die.
Mr. Vincent asked why the turtles could not be re-homed at a zoo or aquarium rather than killed and said he thinks the decision to kill the turtles is because the building in which they are housed is going to be demolished, an assertion which Mr. Milsom denied.
“All species of sea turtles are protected by international law because they are highly endangered,” said Mr. Vincent. “Instead of killing these at-risk animals, UBC should contribute to the long-term conservation of sea turtles by handing them over to a sanctuary or to the Vancouver Aquarium. Killing the animals after UBC has experimented on them for 10 years just adds insult to injury. They’ve suffered enough.”
However, a spokesperson for the Vancouver Aquarium told the Vancouver Sun that the aquarium is not in a position to take the animals, even if they were on offer.
The Stop UBC Animal Research group, which was set up last year, has also recently highlighted experiments carried out on other animals, including cats and monkeys, at the university.
Tim Adam, managing director of the Cayman Turtle Farm, said he planned to contact the university and Mr. Milsom to find out more about the situation.
“The Cayman Turtle Farm is keen to help in any way we can. We have a wealth of knowledge and expertise and research behind us in how best to deal with these animals. We stand ready and willing to help in regard to whatever way we can help the situation,” Mr. Adam said.
He acknowledged that animal research was an emotive issue, but said such research is sometimes necessary to ensure the protection of a species in the wild. Although he was not aware of details of the research being carried out on the turtles by the Zoology Department of the University of British Columbia, he said that if extensive, invasive procedures had been carried out on the turtles, it may be more humane to euthanise them than let them live in pain.
Six of the seven species of marine turtles, including the green sea turtle, are protected under the US Endangered Species Act. On the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, which listed threatened and endangered species, three species of marine turtles are listed as critically endangered; two, including the green sea turtle, are listed as endangered; and one as vulnerable.
All seven are on listed on CITES Appendix One, which includes species the organisation considers most endangered.