Tortoise doctors

During the afternoon of 20 July Nick Savy, General Manager of Bird Island, came round to our chalet to ask if we could help to treat a tortoise that had been injured by a falling tree, resulting in a fractured carapace.

Bird Island hosts about twenty tortoises, but they are not the kind you would keep as a pet (thankfully no longer commonplace in Europe). They are Aldabra Giant Tortoises, weighing up to about 250 kg. Handling them is thus no easy feat!

The injured individual was one of the largest on the island. It proved to have a split in the front right side of its carapace. It had blood on its front right leg but there was no heavy blood flow by the time we arrived and Nick thought the tree fall might have happened about two days previously. The wound and the blood on the leg were covered in flies, with some maggots already present.

Gentle persuasion: Christine, Darryl and Joana encouraging an injured Aldabra Giant Tortoise to walk to the surgery! (Photo: Chris Feare)

The first problem was to persuade the heavy animal to move to a clean place where it could be examined. By a mixture of gently tapping it on the rear of its carapace to persuade it to walk and guiding its direction by moving pallets to restrict its sideways vision, it eventually made its way into a largely disused building. Two old mattresses were place on the floor and five men managed to turn it on to its side so that the wound could be examined more clearly.

This revealed that the affected part of the carapace had a c. 40 centimetre split about 5 centimetres from the edge. It confirmed, however, that blood was not flowing freely but the area was attracting a cloud of flies. The island’s Conservation Officer, Joana Soares, and Christine proceeded to clean the affected tissues with water and Joana removed maggots and other particles with forceps. An iodine solution was then applied to guard against infection. The affected part of the carapace was then dried as far as possible and held together with waterproof strongly adhesive duct tape.

The injury

The carapace of a tortoise is living tissue and so should heal, but this is a slow process. Fortunately, the location of the damage, at the edge of the carapace, suggested that this part would not be subject to great stresses when the animal was upright and walking. With limited resources on this small island and with no readily available veterinary advice, we felt that this was the best we could do. The tortoise was duly turned carefully back on to its feet and left inside the building with fresh food and water. We hope that in a week or two it will be possible to release the animal back to its busy life grazing vegetation and fruits, dispersing seeds and entertaining hotel guests with it relaxed, slow lifestyle.

Treatment in progress: Christine and Joana clean the wound while the tortoise is held in a position that it has doubtless never experienced before (Photo: Chris Feare)

We took several photographs and Camille Lebarbenchon, a French colleague who is working with us on the island studying seabird pathogens, has sent some to a veterinarian friend for further advice.

Meanwhile, Joana and Christine, the unexpected tortoise doctors, will be anxious to follow the animal’s recovery.

Apart from the silver tape binding, the following day the tortoise looks reasonable comfortable – but it is hard t know how it feels! (Photo: Chris Feare)
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