Impaled with hooks and laid on its back in a tool shed, an endangered green sea turtle was saved from the butcher’s knife at the 11th hour last week.
Department of Environment enforcement officers investigating reports of poaching in the eastern districts made the discovery on Thursday.
They were able to remove the hooks with bolt cutters, and the 400-pound female turtle was treated for its wounds by a Cayman Turtle Centre veterinarian and returned to the sea, injured but alive. The homeowner of the premises where the turtle was found was detained for questioning.
It is the fifth confirmed poaching incident this year, and environment officials warn that targeting turtles for their meat is a “serious and growing problem.”
Janice Blumenthal, a research officer with the Department of Environment, said turtle nesting numbers are higher than usual this year, and environment officers and volunteers are seeing more evidence of poaching.
“Our turtle population is still critically low and if our native nesting female turtles are poached, we will lose our chance at seeing the population recover,” she said.
“We have found evidence of five turtles being taken this year and there are likely to have been additional undocumented incidents.”
She said Thursday’s rescue was possible only because a member of the public had tipped off the Department of Environment.
She urged people not to buy black market turtle meat, and said the Department of Environment is working with the turtle farm to make it easier to target the illegal turtle meat trade.
“A major problem is that legal farmed turtle meat cannot currently be distinguished from illegal wild meat on the black market,” she said. “Cayman Turtle Centre has agreed to package all turtle meat products in sealed, labeled, tamper-evident bags so that DoE conservation officers and police officers can distinguish between farmed and wild meat. This would be a major step forward in enforcing the law.”
She said anyone caught with wild turtle meat or eggs could be prosecuted under the National Conservation Law.
“Any turtle meat sold informally, door to door, is likely to come from poached turtles, which may be among the last few breeding turtles in our nesting population,” she said.
Turtles are a prime target for poachers during nesting season when they come onto the beaches to lay their eggs. In this case, however, it appears the turtle was caught at sea.
“The hooks had been attached to a rope and thrown like a grappling hook to capture the turtle. It appeared that she had been hidden in the shed to await being butchered,” said Ms. Blumenthal.
Officers Carl Edwards and Alan MacKay attended the scene.
The turtle was bleeding from wounds to its flippers and neck. The officers rushed it to the DoE headquarters, where staff used heavy-duty bolt cutters to remove the hooks.
Cayman Turtle Centre veterinarian Dr. Ana Malabia treated the wounds and the turtle was tagged, measured, and released by DoE research staff and interns.
Ms. Blumenthal said its injuries would make it more vulnerable at sea, but that the wounds were survivable.
She added, “We hope she will continue to nest on our beaches for many years to come.
“It is estimated that less than 1 in 1,000 sea turtles survive to maturity and our nesting population is still critically small. Every one of our nesting turtles is critical in allowing our population to survive and recover.”
Anyone who is aware of turtle meat being bought or sold illegally can call in an anonymous tip to Crime Stoppers on 800-TIPS, Crimes in progress should be reported immediately to 911.