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Paignton Zoo Environmental Park is among the leading UK zoos responding to the crisis facing Asian turtles in the wild.

The Lower Vertebrate and Invertebrate Department at Paignton Zoo, in collaboration with Bristol Zoo and ZSL London Zoo, recently helped set up and organise a workshop on turtle husbandry. The workshop was a chance for zoos and aquarium staff from across Europe to discuss turtle husbandry; and to talk about how Western zoological collections can support in-situ projects such as rescue centres with information and research data.

Paignton Zoo’s parent charity, the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, supports seven regional conservation programmes which focus on work in the UK, Africa and South East Asia. Vietnam is one of these programmes and the Turtle Conservation Centre at Cuc Phuong is close by the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Programme which Paignton Zoo already supports.

As part of the initiative, three colleagues working in turtle conservation in Vietnam were able to attend the UK workshop and then visit partner institutions for training sessions and meetings.

The three were Tim McCormack, Program Coordinator from the Asian Turtle Program (ATP); Thu Thuy Nguyen, the Vietnam Turtle Program coordinator for ATP and Hao Do Thanh, the Centre Manager at the Turtle Conservation Centre, Cuc Phuong.

The delegates visited Paignton Zoo, Living Coasts and Newquay Zoo to tour the facilities, learn about all aspects of husbandry such as enclosure design and how to set up new exhibits; to discuss behavioural management, diets and other key factors in keeping turtles in zoological collections. They also took the chance to talk about research priorities, animal health issues and to spend time with Paignton Zoo’s in-house veterinary team.

In addition, the three delegates gave a talk to Paignton Zoo staff and volunteers about the Asian turtle crisis, the work being done in Vietnam to help deal with the situation and the role zoos can play.

Luke Harding, Paignton Zoo’s Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates explained the background to the crisis and the recent workshop: “The Asian turtle population is in crisis for a number of reasons, principally from the unsustainable harvesting of freshwater turtles to supply Chinese markets for food and Oriental medicine. Then there’s loss of habitat, disease and possible threats from climate change. 16 of the 25 species found in Vietnam are now recognised by the IUCN as highly threatened.

“A number of initiatives have been put in place to try and stem the threat to turtle survival in Vietnam, including the formation of the Asian Turtle Programme and the in-situ breeding centre set up in Cuc Phuong National Park. However, these efforts are being hindered by husbandry capacity, a lack of finance, manpower and staff training.”

The workshops at Paignton Zoo were aimed at providing some of the staff training needed in order for the project to move forward. Luke again: “Ex-situ institutions such as Paignton Zoo sit at the interface with in-situ conservation projects such as the work in Vietnam. Training was given in how to use evidence-based husbandry in order to develop and improve in-situ breeding and release programmes.

“Paignton Zoo was delighted to be able to host these workshops, which are a great example of how the fantastic work of all departments from Lower Vertebrates & Invertebrates to horticulture can support in-situ conservation. We look forward to working with these projects in an effort to conserve these highly threatened turtle species and their habitats.”

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