Illegal turtle swap? Improper rearing? Is the government powerless?! End the improper confinement and exhibition of sea turtles at Penghu County’s Dayi Temple

 Dayi Temple (大義宮) of Zhuwan Village (竹灣村) in Penghu Country, dedicated to the worship of Guan Yu (關公), has for the last thirty years reared more than ten sea turtles in a filthy, sealed underground room, deprived of natural light. Sea turtles are solitary animals in the wild, but have been kept in the same pool at the temple while being exhibited for the visiting public. The temple has turned the pool into a wishing well and induced the public people to toss coins, thus contaminating the pool with heavy metals. Levels of heavy metal in the blood of the captive sea turtles exceeds that of those caught by fisheries in the wild. Furthermore, because the sea turtles have been deprived access to sunlight (particularly ultraviolet light), the turtles have developed vitamin D3 deficiencies, affecting the absorption of calcium required for the growth of shells. As a result of these conditions, the lifespan of these captive turtles has been greatly reduced, while the group rearing environment has caused the turtles to fight and compete for food.

 The government has so far been unable to clearly grasp the number of sea turtles that were sent to the basement of the Dayi Temple before the implementation of the Wildlife Conservation Act (野生動物保育法) in 1989. The temple itself has declared that that number is nine, though according to the the Ocean Affairs Council’s (海洋委員會) statistical record of sea turtle deaths, in the approximately 30-year period from 1997 until today (government records only begun in 1997) there have been 10 sea turtle deaths in Dayi Temple (nine green sea turtles and one hawksbill sea turtle). Counting the eight turtles currently kept by Dayi Temple (five green sea turtles, one loggerhead sea turtle, and two hawksbill sea turtles), from the time Dayi Temple announced it was rearing sea turtles (1986) until now, it has kept at least 18 sea turtles that are classified as protected. Given this, the question is: has the temple illegally replenished its bale of protected sea turtles? From the central government down to the local government, no one has exact information.

 Furthermore, for these turtles that usually live past 100 years, the high death rate seen at the temple is extremely abnormal. From the central government (previously the responsible authority was the Forest Bureau (林務局), now it is the Ocean Affairs Council) to the the local government, there has been a complete dereliction of duty that cannot be shirked.

 Because the local villagers believe that rearing sea turtles can bless the work of fisherman out at sea, despite the many complaints from the public to the government over the years protesting this “improper rearing” or even “abuse”, demanding that the government intervene, the central and local government authorities have been unable to make the villages of Zhuwan agree to relocate the sea turtles to a suitable outdoor captive environment, or consider releasing the sea turtles back into the ocean. In recent years Dayi Temple has agreed to allow the turtles to be moved to the Penghu Fisheries Research Institute (澎湖水產試驗所) in batches on a short-term rotational basis, allowing them some exposure to sunlight and to the ability to undergo health checks. This has been coordinated by conservation staff at the Penghu County government. And in January 2012, Dayi Temple begun installing a circulating filtration system in the underground pool.

 When EAST visited Dayi Temple in May 2017 to examine the circumstances of the sea turtles, we witnessed the sea turtles, which are naturally solitary animals, housed as a group in a small, cramped pool. Each turtle had grown to exceed one metre in length, and the inadequate housing conditions had led to distress, and fighting between the turtles. Some of the turtle’s shells even had moss growing on them.   

 EAST actively communicated with the county government and attended an information session hosted by the Penghu County Agriculture and Fisheries Bureau Conservation Branch (澎湖縣農漁局保育科) at the Zhuwan Community Centre (竹灣村民活動中心) on June 14, 2017. EAST spoke directly with the temple and the villagers, in the hope that the sea turtles could be shifted or potentially released into the wild. On that day, the temple and villagers declared that they would actively improve the sea turtle’s living environment within the next half a year, including expanding the pool the turtles are kept in, and allowing the turtles to leave the sealed underground room to enjoy a larger space with natural light. In addition, the county government conservation department announced that following improvements to housing conditions and expert training the space could be transformed into a small-scale sea turtle rescue centre. In this way the turtles could be continuously replenished, allowing the existing sea turtles to move to the Penghu Fisheries Research Institute, or be considered for release. This solution would also enable Dayi Temple to continue to house turtles, maintaining the villagers’ tradition, simultaneously fulfilling the needs of conservation and belief.

 However, with the end of this year approaching, improvements are still yet to be made to the sea turtles’ housing conditions at Dayi Temple, in breach of their commitment. Eight sea turtles continue to be held captive in the same deplorable, cramped, pool in the underground room. Two hawksbill sea turtles are being held in one small area of the pool, while another slightly larger area houses five green sea turtles and one loggerhead sea turtle. In this extremely narrow, horizontal pool, the turtles can only swim back and forth along the wall of the pool, constantly colliding with each other. In the past 30 years, the sea turtles have lived in this poorly ventilated basement without access to natural light. The air is filled with the smell of detergents and paints, and the bottom of the pool is covered in coins from wishing tourists. The conditions are truly appalling.

 Species like the green sea turtle, loggerhead sea turtle, hawksbill sea turtle, olive ridley sea turtle etc. are classified as endangered species by the Wildlife Conservation Act. According to Article 16 of the Act, protected wildlife should not be disturbed, abused hunted, traded, exhibited, displayed, owned, imported, exported, or bred. Although Dayi Temple housed a bale of turtles prior to the enactment of the Wildlife Conservation Act in 1989, and in 1994 obtained a rearing registration in accordance with the law, because the government does not hold precise figures, the responsible authorities should conduct a thorough investigation. This would verify whether or not the Dayi Temple illegally replenished its bale following the deaths of its several turtles. The responsible authorities should publish the results in a report, to ensure its credibility.

 Sea turtles are solitary animals, which seldom move in groups in the ocean, except for when courting their mates. By keeping the sea turtles in group housing, Dayi Temple is not only violating their natural instincts, but also causing them to display symptoms of stress syndrome including competing for food, fighting, and other behaviours. In the long-term, this can lead to many forms of illness or even death . In 2012, a National Taiwan Ocean University postgraduate student tested the Dayi Temple sea turtles’ blood four times, and discovered that the levels of heavy metal (copper and nickel) in the blood of the captive green sea turtles exceeded that of those caught by fisheries in the wild. In addition, the concentrations of nickel in the water of the Dayi Temple pool were four times higher than those of the Penghu Fisheries Research Institute. This is likely a result of Dayi Temple creating a wishing well and inducing visitors to toss coins into the pool, causing the contamination problem. The research also found the turtles to have red and swollen eyes . Furthermore, because the sea turtles have been deprived access to sunlight (particularly ultraviolet light) in the underground room, the turtles have developed vitamin D3 deficiencies, affecting the absorption of calcium required for the growth of their shells.
 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists sea turtles as endangered species. The international community has long had a clear understanding of the importance of conserving sea turtles, and strictly regulated their captivity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 2013 published specific standards  for the raising sea turtles in captivity, including performances, transport, equipment, water quality, diet, etc. Among these, it is clearly stated that differently sized sea turtles require different amounts of space. Sea turtles with a body length exceeding 50cm should be kept in a space at least seven times as long as their body, two times as wide as their shell, and one metre deep. For each additional sea turtle, there must be an increase in the surface area of the space of 50%. Simultaneously, if it is not possible to provide a naturally lit environment, artificial lights must use UVB light with wavelengths of -280nm to 320nm, and complementary measures based on a veterinarian's assessment must be implemented. This regulation lays out the well-established behaviour of captive sea turtles  and carefully considers all of the factors affecting their health. It can be regarded as a professional and reasonable standard by which to assess the rearing environment found at Dayi Temple.

 According to standards  set by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), if wild animals are held in captivity in the name of protection or conservation, they should adhere to all kinds of inspections and requirements. These specifications encompass not only basic conditions including living conditions and diet, but also professional care, site equipment safety checks, veterinarian presence, and the economic situation of the shelter. It is similarly a very complete set of inspection indicators.

 Yu-Min Chen, EAST’s Deputy Chief Executive, noted: Dayi Temple’s sheltering of these sea turtles possibly stemmed from a place of kindness and compassion, though the temple now attracts domestic and international guests to see these precious animals, turning it into a cash cow within the temple’s walls. Unfortunately, the temple has not only failed to treat the sea turtles that have brought it fame and tourist dollars kindly, but conversely caused them distress and suffering, even bringing an early death for many of these long-lived creatures. The central and Penghu County governments have been incapable of supervising the temple to uplift the rearing environment, and have failed to act according to the law’s requirements in confiscating and rescuing these animals. Instead, they continue to permit these sea turtles to be displayed year after year, representing a severe dereliction of duty.

 Dayi Temple’s display permit is on the verge of expiry, and will reach its expiration date at the end of this month (November). EAST demands that the Ocean Affairs Council and Forestry Bureau intervene, and prohibit Dayi Temple from continuing to publicly exhibit these severely abused sea turtles. Should Dayi Temple persist in rearing sea turtles, a strict date must be set for the improvement of their living space. Otherwise the sea turtles should be rescued immediately, and provided with medical treatment. Furthermore, each turtle should be individually marked for monitoring and identification purposes.

 Yu-Min Chen calls on the public to appeal to Dayi Temple: “To realise greater compassion and publicly demonstrate Guan Yu’s righteousness, provide these sea turtles with a more suitable living environment, or allow experts to evaluate the potential for release to the wild, returning them to the boundless ocean where they belong.”

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