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Hundreds of smuggled turtles intercepted at Anchorage airport

Inspectors with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service made an unusual discovery at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in September: more than 200 live baby turtles.

Because of the young age of the turtles, and the way they were being shipped, about half of the animals have died, according to Nicole Abeln, the Anchorage Museum's animal care technician, tasked with caring for the turtles.

Most of the turtles belonged to species that are protected from illegal poaching and export, according to Fish and Wildlife officials. The reptiles were stuffed into boots, hidden away inside luggage bound for China, according to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa, one of the facilities to receive some of the animals. Currently, about 35 turtles remain at the Anchorage Museum, where they are being cared for until federal officials find homes for them.

Abeln said turtles have already been sent to public institutions in New York, Florida, Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma and Indiana. She said the Anchorage Museum planned on keeping about five of the animals, and expects to put them on public display when they are bigger. All told, there were six species of turtles intercepted: Blanding's turtles, North American wood turtles, loggerhead musk turtles, diamondback terrapins, Kwangtung River turtles, and box turtles.

Sixteen turtles have already been sent to Iowa, including North American wood turtles, Blanding's turtles, and loggerhead musk turtles, according to NMRMA's director of living collections, Andy Allison. Allison said his museum is working with other animal sanctuaries to take in more of the turtles.

"In Iowa, Blanding's turtles and wood turtles are threatened because of habitat issues like wetland draining and pollution," Allison said.

Allison said that the turtles were all hatchlings, most just a few inches long.

"Some turtles still had an umbilical scar on the underside of the shell, that's a sign of being just a few weeks old," Allison added.

Allison said the turtles were headed to China to be grown large enough to be sold as pets or as dinner. China has a huge appetite for turtles (figuratively and literally). Hard-shelled varieties are used for ancient medicinal formulas aimed at alleviating kidney problems. The meat from turtles is sold for soups. After centuries of overharvesting, Asian turtle species are hard to find, making American varieties more desirable and increasing the illegal turtle trade, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which estimates that more than 2 million American turtles are illegally exported to China each year.

While local Fish and Wildlife officials did not want to comment about the specifics of the Anchorage find, citing the ongoing nature of their investigation, they did confirm that the discovery of so many animals in one location is rare. And that made for some hurried phone calls around Anchorage to see who could, at least temporarily, care for the baby turtles.

"I was desperate when we found those, and I started making phone calls," Fish and Wildlife's supervisory wildlife inspector Chris Andrews said. "And I called the Anchorage Museum and asked if they were sure they could handle them all, and they said, 'it's the right thing to do; bring them over.'"

Abeln said she wasn't a huge turtle fan before getting the bale of baby turtles on Sept. 19, but she is now.

"I loved every minute of it, even though it was stressful and a lot of work," Abeln said. "I have a lot more turtle paraphernalia at my house than I used to."

Abeln said the turtles are eating a variety of worms, shrimp, mussels, clams and frozen fish food. With no prior experience caring for turtle hatchlings, Abeln said she reached out for advice on how to best rear the baby turtles.

"We had to do a lot of research on how to care and feed them," she said, and that "Jordan Gray (at the Houston Zoo) was a huge help."

She added that most of the turtles that remain at the Anchorage Museum are doing well; they are eating, exploring their plastic shoe bins, and basking in UV light.

"It is great to see them acting like turtles again," Abeln said. "When we got them they were very lethargic and dehydrated because they were being shipped in an airplane in not-ideal conditions and probably hadn't had food or water in a while."

Besides the five turtles being kept at the Anchorage Museum, the remainder will be given out to public institutions with the restriction that they only be used for live animal educational purposes.