When the pandemic led to the movement control order (MCO), few of us conceived how long it would continue or what kind of impact it would have. For a batch of rare wild Malaysian terrapins, locally known as Tuntung, it brought sickness and danger.
“Our Tuntung are river terrapins, they can’t go in the sea,” Dr Chen Pelf Nyok, co-founder of the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia, explains. “Locally they are found in just three states: Kedah, Perak and Terengganu.”
As they are critically endangered and listed as a totally protected species, the Society has a special permit to conserve these little creatures. They raise the terrapins from eggs in tanks, keep them for a few months, and then release them.
In the wild, tiny baby terrapins are vulnerable to a large host of predators. By going out into the world slightly bigger and in good condition, the little animals have a slightly better start in life. It’s pushing the edges of survival without interfering.
But the MCO interfered with the process.
“We had 600 or so baby Tuntung raised in our tanks in Kampung Pasir Gajah, Kemaman, Terengganu, that we planned to release on March 21 this year,” Dr Chen shares. “But with the MCO, we couldn’t go to the village.
“We’ve had big lots in our tanks before, but not for that long. It’s a delicate operation and a lot of work to keep so many animals healthy. Over the months, there was a water quality issue. When we were finally able to return, we saw some of the terrapins had eye problems.”
Of the 600 animals, 25 had sore eyes. Concerned, the staff removed and isolated the sick animals, putting each into their own mini tank.
At this point, they were stumped. Conservationists are not vets. Asking for help wasn’t a straightforward issue because there aren’t many vets that specialise in turtles, and even fewer that have experience with these rare wild species. Add in the fact that the kampung is isolated, and that house calls would involve some fairly horrendous logistics.
“We’ve had sick terrapins from time to time, so we put together a first aid system that has done well in the past,” Dr Chen says. “We gave them medical baths that included a little iodine. It was OK but not great. That’s when we thought we’d reach out on social media.”
Asking for help online can backfire when strangers pile on to heap blame and second-guess but, thankfully, numerous hobby turtle fanciers and vets – some from as far away as Taiwan – reached out with good questions and shared successful experiences.
“A lot suggested Nicol eye drops that are specially formulated for cats and that can be bought over the counter, ” Dr Chen says. “And most importantly, a vet reminded us that we had to flush their eyes with saline water for contact lenses before treatment – that was a common sense approach that we had overlooked!”
The human specialists stepped up as well.
Dr Valarmathy Vaiyavari, an ophthalmologist or eye specialist from Universiti Malaya, and a nature lover in her spare time who is the founder of Beach Clean-up in Penang, Kedah and Butterworth as well as Gift of Love, offered some perspective.
“I’m not a vet, ” she cautioned. “But as a suggestion, I thought the terrapins might do better with an ointment, a slightly different concentration, as it has longer staying power.”
Dr Chandra Kumar, an ophthalmologist in the Klang Valley, was consulted as well. “I have been shown photos of household pets before, for an opinion on their eyes.”
“From my conversations with pet owners and vets, it appears that access to vets specialising in eyes can be difficult hence the many cases of household pets becoming blind from cataracts.
“But I’ve never been asked about a terrapin or any other reptile. My first reaction was surprise!
“It can be hard to diagnose an eye condition from a photo but, coupled with the history given, it looked like there was a severe eye infection which was infiltrating the eye starting from the cornea. These poor terrapins were going to get blind without prompt treatment.
“Fortunately, Pelf had isolated the infected terrapins and started instilling antibiotics into the eyes early. Also, she mixed diluted iodine in the water used by the terrapins. Perfect treatment!
“The infection to the eyes probably started as a corneal ulcer originating from injury or contamination from bacteria. In my practice, most of my patients who develop corneal ulcers are contact lens wearers and this would be an eye emergency necessitating intensive treatment with antibiotics.”
The results of all the advice has been good. “There are two or three that are still in bad shape, and three died, but five have healed completely,” Dr Chen says, relieved. “That horrible crust that is covering and causing the damage is falling off, so I’m hopeful we can heal the rest. We’re very grateful.”
At present, the team are treating the Tuntung every few hours. When they are completely healthy, they will be released – including those who have lost one or both eyes.
“Wild animals aren’t always in prime shape,” Dr Chen observes. “We’ve hatched handicapped animals too. We’ve seen terrapins that emerged blind, and last year, we released a three-legged terrapin. He was doing well in captivity – he was able to feed like the normal ones did.
“Our job is not to interfere with nature but to help boost their chances. So we will take care of them until they are fit and can find their own food. Then we release them into the river and they make their own lives in the wild.
“Helping wildlife is a challenge that takes a community. If you have time to volunteer, do join a conservation organisation. Together, we can make a difference.”
To support the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia visit turtleconservationsociety.org.my
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