Rescuing Box Turtles and Coral: Providing Sanctuary for Illegally Trafficked Animals

Amidst the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles International Airport lies a small room with a poignant mission. Here, in what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service terms their "live room," confiscated animals await their fate. Among them are box turtles, plucked from the wilds of eastern North America and destined for foreign lands. Their discovery at a nearby mail facility marked the beginning of a complex investigation into illegal wildlife trafficking.

In this clandestine space, a scene unfolds: a criminal investigator, shrouded in anonymity, observes the evidence of this illicit trade. Plastic tanks, filled with wood chips, house the turtles—silent witnesses to a crime worth billions. Yet, beyond the legalities and profits, lies a more pressing concern: the welfare of these creatures.

Distressed and displaced, the turtles embody the dual role of evidence and victim. With their future uncertain, they require specialized care and refuge. However, returning them to the wild is fraught with challenges—disease and unknown origins loom as formidable barriers.

For Tamesha Woulard, a seasoned veteran of wildlife enforcement, the plight of confiscated animals is a longstanding dilemma. But amidst the complexities, a glimmer of hope emerges. Collaborating with the Association for Zoos and Aquariums, the Fish and Wildlife Service has initiated a pioneering project in Southern California. This endeavor seeks not only to provide sanctuary but also to address the root cause of wildlife trafficking.

As discussions of expansion loom, the urgency of the situation becomes clear. In the fight against wildlife crime, every seized animal represents a call to action—a reminder of the ongoing battle for their protection and survival.

Within the confines of the Fish and Wildlife Service office, a somber reality unfolds. Among the confiscated turtles, some bear the telltale signs of distress—mottled splotches mar their shells, hinting at potential sickness. This assortment of turtles, intercepted from the clutches of illegal trade, represents a mix of Eastern Box Turtles from the eastern United States and Yucatan Box Turtles native to Mexico. Notably, the Yucatan Box Turtles sport pale white heads, a distinction amidst the chaos of their circumstances.

Yet, these turtles are not isolated cases. They are but a fraction of the staggering scale of wildlife trafficking—a lucrative and pervasive criminal enterprise. The trade, valued between $7 billion to $23 billion annually, spans continents, driven by a demand for exotic creatures destined for food, medicine, adornments, or companionship. In the words of Ghada Waly, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, these crimes exact an "untold harm to nature," imperiling ecosystems, livelihoods, and global stability.

Recent data paints a grim picture: from 2018-2021, global wildlife trafficking surged by 150%, as revealed by an analysis utilizing government data. In the United States alone, the Fish and Wildlife Service documented the seizure or abandonment of nearly 50,000 live plants and animals between 2015-2019—an average of about 27 individuals per day. Tamesha Woulard, a veteran of wildlife enforcement, notes that this figure likely underestimates the current reality, exacerbated by the proliferation of e-commerce and the exploitation of unconventional species for profit.

However, amidst the shadows of illicit trade, nuances emerge. Woulard acknowledges that not all transactions are malicious—well-intentioned enthusiasts may unknowingly support illegal trade, while importers may inadvertently violate regulations due to the complexity of identifying legally permissible species. In Southern California, a hub for legal imports of tropical fish and corals, the line between legality and illegality blurs, highlighting the challenges of enforcing wildlife protection laws in a globalized world.

Tamesha Woulard, a seasoned voice in the realm of wildlife enforcement, offers a sobering perspective: amidst the chaos of illegal wildlife trade, there exists a parallel world of legal transactions. "What we do is we facilitate the legal trade and we intercept the illegal trade," she explains, encapsulating the delicate balance of regulation and enforcement.

When authorities confiscate live animals, regardless of the circumstances, they inherit a weighty responsibility—the welfare of these creatures. In Torrance, within the confines of the Fish and Wildlife Service office, this duty manifests in the form of specialized rooms. Saltwater tanks, meticulously maintained, provide sanctuary for seized fish, corals, and clams. Nearby, a smaller chamber echoes with the scurrying of box turtles, once home to a menagerie of rare birds and formidable lizards.

The mission is clear: preservation of life, however temporary. The staff's mandate is simple yet profound—to sustain these animals until they find refuge in facilities equipped for their unique needs. For aquatic species, this entails precise conditions of temperature, pressure, and chemistry—a task often shouldered by dedicated volunteers like Shaw Droker at the Aquarium of the Pacific.

A beacon of hope emerges in the form of the Wildlife Confiscations Network. Launched just nine months ago, this initiative revolutionizes the process of triaging and placing confiscated animals in long-term care. Sara Walker of the AZA underscores its significance, particularly for law enforcement overwhelmed by the deluge of smuggled creatures. Since its inception, the network has facilitated the placement of over 1,300 animals across zoos, aquariums, and conservancies.

Yet, challenges persist. Nate Jaros, senior curator at the Aquarium of the Pacific, reflects on the demand for tropical corals—an allure that often leads to misidentification and subsequent confiscation. While efforts to propagate in-house mitigate the need for wild harvesting, the looming specter of limited space casts a shadow. As Walker acknowledges, the reality of euthanasia for unplaceable animals looms, a grim reminder of the ongoing battle against the exploitation of wildlife.

As efforts to combat wildlife trafficking intensify, Sara Walker of the AZA reveals ambitious plans to expand the Wildlife Confiscations Network nationwide. The goal? To forge a unified front against the crisis gripping the animal kingdom. Yet, as Walker acknowledges, this initiative is reactive, born out of necessity rather than prevention—a sobering reminder of the uphill battle against insatiable demand.

For animal care providers, the reality of confiscated animals is grim. Malnourished, sick, and traumatized, each creature requires meticulous attention. At the Fish and Wildlife Service office, a dedicated team inspects and triages these victims of illegal trade, offering tailored care in the hopes of restoring them to health.

Among the casualties of this illicit commerce are American turtles, increasingly ensnared in the web of trafficking. For some, salvation lies in the tranquil confines of The Turtle Conservancy in Ojai, California. Sheltered from public view, this sanctuary has become a haven for confiscated turtles, including a substantial influx of box turtles—testaments to the escalating crisis.

James Liu, director of The Turtle Conservancy, elucidates the complex dynamics driving this surge in trafficking. Economic prosperity in Asian nations, coupled with the allure of turtles for traditional medicine, food, and companionship, fuels the demand. In turn, America's rich turtle biodiversity becomes a target, exacerbated by the economic aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Abby Roeser and Lani Yoo, stalwarts of The Turtle Conservancy, labor tirelessly to rehabilitate these victims. Daily inspections, meticulous care, and a wealth of compassion are their tools in the fight against disease and malnutrition. Yet, as Liu solemnly notes, the battle rages on, with the value of a single box turtle often outweighing its intrinsic worth in dollars.

In the face of adversity, conservationists confront a multifaceted crisis—one that transcends borders and demands collective action. As the shadows of trafficking loom large, the plight of these turtles serves as a poignant reminder of humanity's responsibility to protect and preserve the natural world.

In the quiet confines of the conservancy's quarantine room, a delicate dance of restoration unfolds. Here, amidst the hushed whispers of caregivers, new arrivals find solace after the tumult of trafficking. James Liu, a beacon of compassion in this sanctuary, tends to a male box turtle, its shell a canvas of contrasting hues—an intricate blend of ink black and golden orange, reminiscent of a Rorschach test.

As Liu meticulously tends to the turtle's needs, a profound truth emerges—the patterns adorning these shells are not merely ornamental. They are the product of millennia of evolution, crafted to mimic the dappled light filtering through the canopy of eastern North American forests. In their native habitat, these patterns serve as nature's cloak, bestowing upon the turtles the gift of camouflage.

Yet, this natural camouflage becomes a double-edged sword in the face of human greed. The vibrant hues that aid in survival also serve as a siren call for the pet trade, amplifying the allure of these creatures to collectors far removed from their woodland homes.

Within the quarantine room, a sense of purpose pervades the air. Caregivers, guided by expertise and empathy, administer care to their charges. Every turtle, a living testament to the resilience of nature, undergoes a thorough screening for disease and maladies, a critical step in their journey towards rehabilitation.

For Liu and his team, this room is more than a temporary sanctuary—it is an evidence locker, a repository of lives disrupted by illicit trade. Here, amidst the tanks that line the walls, resides the undeniable truth of the human toll on native U.S. turtles—a stark reminder of the urgent need for conservation and protection.

As the caregivers tend to the turtles with unwavering dedication, a sense of hope permeates the quarantine room. Each act of compassion, each tender gesture, represents a small victory in the battle against wildlife trafficking. Yet, beyond the walls of this sanctuary, the struggle continues—a relentless tide of demand threatens to engulf these precious creatures.

In the face of this crisis, the plight of the box turtles serves as a poignant reminder of the interconnectedness of all life. Their intricate patterns, honed by evolution, speak to a deeper truth—the delicate balance of nature, where every species plays a vital role.

As we bear witness to their journey of rehabilitation, we are called to action. It is not enough to lament the loss of biodiversity or to condemn the perpetrators of wildlife crime. We must stand as stewards of the natural world, guardians of its treasures.

In the quietude of the quarantine room, amidst the whispers of caregivers and the gentle rustle of shells, we find inspiration—a reminder that even in the darkest of times, the light of compassion shines bright. Together, let us forge a future where the beauty of these creatures is cherished, not commodified, and where every turtle can thrive in the sanctuary of their native forests.