Saving Turtle ‘Agdao’

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 09 June)  — In early April 2018, Fermin Edillon got an urgent call from Gelaine Arguillas of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Region XI asking of the private marine sanctuary he manages to temporarily house a wounded guest.

Some Agdao fisherfolk in Davao City discovered floating off the sea in front of their village an injured hawksbill turtle (mistakenly reported as a green turtle) that they brought to the barangay hall. The local DENR thought it best to rehabilitate the wounded amphibian at the Aboitiz CleanEnergy Park, a privately-owned pawikan sanctuary in Punta Dumalag, Davao City so they called Edillon for assistance.

The park was at least ready for another visitor to add to its three other resident turtles:  an adult hawksbill and two olive ridleys.  The facility still had one empty tank and the one that City Hall donated that is being used by the second ridley.  For his special guest, Fermin put her to this tank that the ridley turtle occupied beside the shore so she can hear the sound of waves nearby.  The ridley will have to share the other tank of the first ridley turtle farther inside the park.

Fermin, who is at the same time the Community Relations head of Davao Light & Power Company, an Aboitiz company, was not prepared to see what he saw when the newcomer arrived at the park.

She was huge.  Almost fully grown at about a meter or more, the turtle’s shell or carapace alone measured 90 centimeters, bigger than the park’s resident hawksbill.

Turtle ‘Agdao,’ a hawksbill sea turtle, has a bulge on her neck after being pierced by a spear. She was found in early April 2018 by fishermen off the coast of Agdao in Davao City and is currently under the care of Roche Manib, Sr. and the rest of the staff of the Aboitiz Cleanergy Park, a wildlife conservation area in Punta Dumalag, Davao City. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

According to Arguillas, chief of the Protected Area Management and Biodiversity Conservation Section of DENR XI, embedded on its severely inflamed neck – the size of a tenpin bowling ball – and lodged just at the point where her neck joins her shell was a spear shaft with only about less than an inch protruding from her wound.  The inflammation was so big that the turtle code-named by the park as ‘Agdao’ (to track where she was found) could not turn her head that was already angled from her body when they found her.

Dr. Ken Lao, the retained veterinarian of the park was perturbed when he examined the turtle, a female, the next day on April 5.  The rear end of the spear itself was already bent that it must have caused the turtle a lot of pain as she struggled.  The shaft (see photo)may have been caught against her shell bending it by her sheer strength or power.  Lao feared that some of her organs may have been injured.

Agdao is the second turtle that suffered from human abuse or carelessness Fermin and the park caretaker, Roche (pronounced “Rochie”) Manid, have taken in.  The first, the olive ridley who gave up her tank for Agdao, was very weak when a Davao citizen gave her to the park last December 2017.  When Roche nursed this turtle code-named ‘Crocky’ because she came from Sonny Dizon’s Davao Crocodile Park, she eventually excreted from her bowels two large plastic materials.

Plastic materials that went with turtle ‘Crocky’s feces. Photo courtesy of OSCAR C. BREVA

Plastics littering the seas have been known to kill marine wildlife that mistakes these for food and ‘Crocky’ was just one of them.  She regained her strength after she successfully moved the plastics out of her system with the help of Dr. Lao and Roche. She is due to be released soon.

As for ‘Agdao,’ Dr. Lao and the DENR people led by Regional Director Ruth Tawantawan reckoned that she had been nursing her injury for about a couple of weeks or more when the fisherfolk found her afloat.  Arguillas thinks that the angle of the spear shaft was such that ‘Agdao’ had a face to face encounter with a spear fisher-diver (see accompanying story).  She could no longer dive underwater because of the inflammation and infection.  They would later find out that the ball of infection included gas or air preventing her from diving underwater to travel and feed. She was still moving, however, but weakly.

Turtle ‘Agdao’s’ main caretaker is Roche Manib, Sr. . He takes care of Turtle Agdao inside the Aboitiz Cleanergy Park in Punta Dumalag, Davao City while nursing bulge on her neck after being pierced by a spear and rescued by local fishermen off the coast of Agdao in Davao City in early April. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

Agdao had difficulty breathing for the first weeks of her stay as she struggled to hoist her snout above water level.  The inflammation prevented her from even bending her head up. She had to be helped by draining the water in her tank that was elevated on one side for her to breathe freely.  And Lao gave her anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial injections daily, training Roche to do it himself.  Roche did a good job on the injections, the amused animal doctor said.

In consultation with Dr. Rizza Salinas, a wildlife veterinarian of the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the DENR in Metro Manila and with the assistance of the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (RAFI) that funds park operations, Dr. Lao had the injured turtle X-rayed.  They thought that a “sima,” the barb of a spear, may cause more damage to the tissues or organs of the turtle if the spear is pulled out.

Fortunately for ‘Agdao,’ while the iron shaft was bent at the protruding end, Dr. Lao saw that at least the arrow did not pierce any sensitive organs of the turtle or her blood vessels. And there was no “sima.” That ‘Agdao’ fought and bent the metal spear, must have been excruciatingly painful for the sea mammal. But she may be saved yet.

The spear shaft taken from the body of turtle ‘Agdao.’ Photo courtesy of OSCAR C. BREVA

Educated and trained at the Univesity of the Philippines in Los Baños, Lao, of the Ark veterinary clinic in Davao City, happened to know Dr. Salinas, his professor, and they consulted each other.  The two vets further consulted other experts in UP Los Baños.  Finally, they decided to go on with the procedure of removing the spear.

Dr. Lao with the assistance of Roche, the park caretaker, successfully removed the spear shaft from Agdao on April 19, taking care not to damage any other tissue or vessel.  “That is one lucky turtle,” a relaxed Lao told us, thinking of the spear that pierced her horizontally but sparing her organs or blood vessels.  When he removed the spear even if ‘Agdao’ was sedated, Lao saw her grimace as the doctor felt the spear touch her spinal column. To the veterinarian who squeezed us in his tight schedule for the interview (he was set to leave for abroad), that must have been very painful to have a reaction like that under sedation.

Dr. Lao, Arguillas and Edillon have now declared ‘Agdao’ safe. She is friskier and moves about her tank easily.  “She ate 15 ‘tambans’ (herring) today,” happily declared Roche, during a visit to the park on June 3. Before, Roche had to virtually feed her with fish by putting the food very close to her snout.  Now she splashes around her tank to catch fish thrown at her by Roche to force her to turn and swim around her tank now filled with water.

Still it is not all clear.  Agdao retains a big bulge in her neck – downsized now to a duckpin bowling ball, and full of air. Dr. Lao punctured it before but it inflated back.  The air, very much like the air in a diver’s BCD, will prevent her from submerging under water to feed and travel on her own.  “Given that, if the hole will not close and heal, my recommendation is not to release Agdao to the wild,” Lao said.  But that is the call of the DENR.  If the government says to release her, they will do it since the DENR calls the shots.

Lao and Dr. Salinas believe that there is a puncture in the turtle’s skin beneath her shell or carapace. Air goes through this hole up to her neck preventing her from diving underwater.  He could not operate on ‘Agdao’ to close that hole.  Without an MRI or CT-scan, he would not know where it is.  And there is no MRI or CT-scan available for animals in Davao or even in Manila.

A boardwalk made from recycled electric posts runs through a portion of the mangrove forest inside the Cleanergy Park, an Aboitiz Foundation-run wildlife conservation area in Punta Dumalag, Davao City. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

Dr. Lao knows of a case in a US animal hospital, where veterinarians placed a turtle in a similar predicament in a hyperbaric (or decompression) chamber for months.  The high pressure compresses the air and allows the puncture to heal better.  But there is no guarantee that it will happen for ‘Agdao.’ This procedure is very expensive because the chamber will be used for a long period and therefore unfeasible.  Left alone, ‘Agdao’ faces a small chance that the hole will close and heal.

If DENR agrees with Lao, Edillon will have to take this up with the foundation for Agdao’s permanent stay at the park.  Fermin sees the foundation doing a video on ‘Crocky’ and ‘Agdao’ so that visitors or guests of the park can appreciate and come to realize the dangers that wildlife especially endangered species like these two, encounter when they come in contact with humans – or their waste materials — in the wild.

And both turtles will be the park’s testament to human folly and the crime against nature likely perpetrated by an unknown spear fisher-diver.  (Oscar C. Breva  is a Davao City-based lawyer and diver. He was managing editor of Atenews at the Ateneo de Davao University in 1977-1978 and before proceeding to Law school at the Ateneo de Manila University, wrote for the San Pedro Express, a Davao City newspaper edited by the late Alfrredo Navarro Salanga. He ranked fifth in the 1985 bar exams).