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Tourists Handling Captive Sea turtles Face Health Risks

Feb 5, 2013

For a copy of the paper, please contact the journal directly:

Rosalind Dewar, Media Office, Royal Society of Medicine
Direct: +44 (0)1580 764713 / Mobile: +44 (0)7785 182732 / Email:

Tourists encountering captive sea turtles while on holiday face health risks, according to new research published this week by the London-based Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

While interacting with wild sea turtles in their natural habitat is quite safe from a human health point of view, the paper demonstrates that contact with wild-caught or captive-bred sea turtles can expose tourists to toxic contaminants and zoonotic pathogens that can jump from animals to people.

Although symptoms from these bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites do not always show themselves immediately and can be mistaken for gastrointestinal disorders or flu, seriously affected people can suffer from septicemia, pneumonia, meningitis or acute renal failure. The biggest bacterial culprits are E.Coli and Salmonella, although there are some lower infection threats from viruses such as Vibrio. Both of these parasites have been detected in water from the touch pools at the Cayman Turtle Farm, (CTF) which offers vacation experiences to pick up sea turtles from confined pools and eat the turtle meat raised at the facility.

The paper included a case study from this farm in Grand Cayman, which is the only facility in the world to rear sea-turtles for meat. The CTF is a popular tourist destination for thousands of tourists who pour off the cruise ships onto the island every day.

The intensive and cramped conditions in which the farm operates – in both the production and tourist areas – can serve to concentrate these pathogens and increase risk to those people visiting the CTF.

Said Clifford Warwick, lead author of the peer-reviewed report, “the subsequent distribution of visitors exposed to turtle farm conditions may also involve opportunities for further dissemination of contaminants into established tourist hubs, including cruise ships and airline carriers.”

After hearing concerning reports over the level of care of some 9,000 endangered green sea turtles at CTF, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) ran an investigation and produced a scientific assessment of the Farm last year.

The global animal welfare charity has been attempting to work with the facility to raise awareness of sea turtle welfare and to raise the standards of care, which will ultimately mean a transition away from the intensive commercial production of the sea turtles – a highly endangered species. Adds Dr. Neil D’Cruze, WSPA Wildlife Campaign Lead, “WSPA is not surprised to hear that the handling of captive green sea turtles poses a potential threat to the visiting public. This independent, peer-reviewed scientific paper confirms our suspicions and shows that the CTF’s operations are inherently flawed.”

The report’s authors also suggest that low awareness of the health risks from handling sea turtles make it difficult to track the source of the pathogens, as cruise line passengers will often attribute their illness to an alternate cause. Adds Dr D’Cruze, “We hope that the Cayman Turtle Farm will recognize that the only real way to completely remove the human health threat will be to end the ‘unique wildlife encounter, and will take steps to immediately improve the lives of the turtles in their care.”

For more information on the WSPA campaign, interviewees and images, contact:
Deborah Burzynski, Regional Communications & Marketing Director, North America Direct: (646) 783-2220 / Email:

Lead author, Clifford Warwick can be contacted directly at:

For more information on the research and a copy of the paper, contact: Rosalind Dewar, Media Office, Royal Society of Medicine Direct: +44 (0)1580 764713 / Mobile: +44 (0)7785 182732 / Email:



Publication info:

• Health implications associated with exposure to farmed and wild sea turtles by Clifford Warwick, Phillip C Arena and Catrina Steedman, will be published online at 00:05 [GMT] on Tuesday 5 February 2013 by JRSM Short Reports.
• Please make sure you mention or link to the journal in your piece.

*Explanation of some of these pathogens and the diseases they can cause:
• Salmonella: one of the most common foodborne diseases, millions of cases are reported each year, with thousands of reported deaths. Diseases caused can range from gastroenteritis to typhoid fever. Most at risk are the very young and the elderly.
• E. Coli: while found in the gut of people and animals, E. Coli bacteria is also a common cause of food poisoning and gastroenteritis. Severity of illness depends on the strain of bacteria, but young children, the elderly and people with a vulnerable immune system are most at risk.
• Vibrio vulnificus: immunosuppressed people are considered most at risk, but it can affect anyone and is potentially fatal. Most disease-causing strains cause gastroenteritis, some result in cholera and it can also infect open wounds and cause septicaemia. •

**More information, plus cited research can be found on P.15 in the WSPA-published document The Cayman Turtle Farm, a case for change. Download here, under ‘other info’:

About the publishers:
JRSM Short Reports is an online-only, open access offshoot to JRSM, the flagship journal of the Royal Society of Medicine and is published by SAGE. Its Editor is Dr Kamran Abbasi. SAGE is a leading international publisher of journals, books, and electronic media for academic, educational, and professional markets. Since 1965, SAGE has helped inform and educate a global community of scholars, practitioners, researchers, and students spanning a wide range of subject areas including business, humanities, social sciences, and science, technology, and medicine. An independent company, SAGE has principal offices in Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC.

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