Everyone in the village thought it was a murder. Added to the nauseating smell of decaying meat was the fact that in that mysterious house the blinds were down and the doors closed. And Tachileik, a town in eastern Myanmar, near the Thai border, had always been a humble enclave, but with open doors. After verifying that fierce discussions were taking place in the interior in an incomprehensible language, the neighbors decided to alert the Burmese Police. The mystery took an unexpected turn. The agents did not find a body in the closet.
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They actually came across a thousand captive loggerhead turtles in little colored buckets scattered throughout the house; some creatures the size of a tablet on which it was believed that there were just under a thousand living specimens. That is, in that dark house 100% of a species was scattered. It turns out that the tortoises of Southeast Asia are the most threatened animals in the world, seven out of ten species are in danger.
In the case of the big heads (Platysternon megacephalum), their territorial characteristics make them the most aggressive of their species. They are perfect baits for gamblers who place them in small clandestine fights or merchants interested in their meat. That hot November 2016, the Madrid herpetologist Borja Reh worked at the Singapore Zoo, where he supported a rapid response unit for seizures of animals in high-risk situations; the thousand turtles required an urgent intervention for which the only veterinarian in the village was not prepared.
But entering Burmese territory has never been an easy task. It is a country so sealed off from the outside that during at least half a century of socialist dictatorship very little was known about its reality. After solving diplomatic and bureaucratic problems, Reh obtained a work permit stamped by some ministry and the next day he flew to the country.
As soon as he disembarked, he undertook an intense ten-hour journey along winding roads before reaching the hamlet: “The situation was grim. Most of the animals had died, and those that remained alive were in dire condition.” Meanwhile, time was running out and the teams that Borja and a veterinarian managed to enter, according to customs regulations, were not the most complete.
There are areas of Myanmar where turtles are seen, within Buddhist traditions, as spiritual guardians and protectors of the local people. In others, especially in the center of the country, where cattle are famished and roads are dusty, poverty does not give respite and many families resort to illegal sales as a last resort.
It is a crime that more than one assumes, despite the fact that it is punishable by up to seven years in prison. In fact, they are not isolated incidents; and the Chinese traffickers are in charge of stimulating them. Fortunately, in recent years Chinese and Burmese police and environmental authorities have managed to intercept several shipments smaller than that of the suspicious house with the lights out.
“The turtles were very sick,” recalls forester Nay Win Kyaw, a fellow at the time, “they were stressed and extremely weak.” Nay recalls that one of the first proposals of the Madrid specialist was to transport the thousand turtles by truck to the north of the country, in search of a cool spot: “The heat of that summer was hellish and the turtles needed cold”, Borja Reh completes . Of the 32 species of turtles in the country, 11 are found in Myanmar. Big heads are also liked for their morphological uniqueness.
Its triangular head, visibly larger than the rest of the body, does not fit inside the shell. They have a sharp, parrot-like beak and limbs covered in large scales that make them excellent climbers.
In the makeshift camp, only 350 were left alive. The days, which lasted up to 18 hours in a row, were supported by a battalion of local university volunteers. The only form of communication was achieved through gestures and signs that were often impossible to discern by one or the other.
Everyone was aware that those turtles were one of the most threatened lineages in Southeast Asia. And that each endangered species, in one of the few places in the world where 46% of the forests remain virgin, is a fracture with unpredictable consequences. In the next 48 hours, a hundred more died and there were only 250 left. Borja Reh remembers that he did not sleep that night. From the beginning he knew that the great majority would not make it, but in his head the possibility of becoming the person responsible for a small great catastrophe resounded like a tick.
In that makeshift ICU under a plastic-lined warehouse in the north of the country, the last days were just as exhausting as the first. The natural thing for any creature after a four-month captivity would have been to go out to feed with voracious hunger, but in the case of loggerhead turtles their first concern was not to survive, but to protect their territory. “Being together in a pond, they had no established territories and they were going crazy,” recapitulates Reh.
So, in close collaboration with nine university volunteers, solutions began to emerge. First they created plots with water lilies. But it was not enough. More than one climbed the fence to annihilate his own neighbor. So someone came up with using large fruit baskets and turning them upside down to ease their anxiety.
But the animals were still very thin and the antibiotics weren’t working. The goal was again to be able to supply them with heat. And in an exercise of trial and error, the team managed to stabilize them. After several early mornings with my heart pounding because of the number of turtles that stayed halfway, some began to show signs of life. Out of a thousand copies, a hundred managed to be rescued in just over 12 days and with the clock of life ticking against it.
Despite the fact that loggerhead turtles continue to be on the Red List of threatened species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), today the Turtle Survival Alliance houses 400 specimens in good condition and with detailed monitoring so that there are no complications.
The fact is that, in 2017, there was another seizure of specimens. This time the Turtle Survival Alliance team was better prepared and managed to save the vast majority of reptiles. Borja Reh, founder of Allies for Wildlife, says that babies are being released today in the jungles of Myanmar. The epilogue of a story that began as the enigma of a mystery novel and ended in a tight narrative of victory for animal conservation.
The original idea of this story is part of the theater and journalism show about the environment organized by the project Live Diary and the magazine White Whale. The show was held on May 11, 2021 at the Alcázar theater in Madrid.