The Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve has a new resident surgeon – but there’s a catch, she’s not interested in doctoring anyone that doesn’t have a shell, or cannot breathe under water!
A Veterinary Surgeon from the United Kingdom, Dr Minnie Liddell moved to the Maldives in September, after joining the Olive Ridley Project in 2020, and will be calling Baa Atoll home for the next 18 months.
As the Resident Veterinarian at the Marine Turtle Rescue Center in Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu Resort, she runs the show; responsible for tank maintenance, educating the island community and guests and more, all in addition to performing complex surgical procedures on her turtle patients.
When Coco Palm’s rescue center was opened in 2017, it was the first fully-equipped marine turtle rescue center in the country. Its facilities include laboratory services, x-ray, ultra sound and surgical facilities.
At any given time, upto eight turtles can be accommodated amongst seven fully-automated water-flowing-regulation-system tanks, developed by Mohamed Didi, Chief Engineer at Coco Collection. These tanks offer Vets like Dr. Minnie the opportunity to successfully perform pre-programmed procedures.
Speaking to The Times of Addu, Dr Minnie revealed that this was her first experience with sea turtles, and that so far, it has proven to be both a wonderful and disheartening experience.
Some turtles require stitches or surgery, while others recover with proper feedings, buoyancy treatment, dive training or require administering medication. However, while Dr Minnie is happy to be able to help take care of turtles and gain a wealth of knowledge, she expressed her sadness at having to witness some of the more horrific injuries.
“We have received some gravely injured turtles, and often have had to amputate flippers as a result.”
Injuries sustained due to entanglement often lead to death, and at times, turtles that survive and rehabilitate are unlikely to survive or reproduce if released into the wild.
The biggest contributor to such marine animal injuries spotted in the Maldives are abandoned, lost and discarded fishing nets, otherwise known as ghost nets.
It’s worth noting that Maldives does not make use of nets in fishing, and most of these nets come drifting to local waters, without an exact known source.
According to data collected by the Olive Ridley Project, over 1000 injured sea turtles have been found since 2013. Of this figure, 546 olive ridley turtles and 257 juveniles were among the rescued.
Not all of them come to the rescue center but are often reported across the country.
Addressing issues faced by turtles due to locals, Dr Minnie highlights poaching and killing of sea turtles. In this regard, she noted that some of the conversations that she has had with locals demonstrated room for more awareness.
Most people are not aware of how long lived turtles are on earth. They also don’t know that any kind of interference can be threatening to them[turtles].Veterinary Surgeon from the United Kingdom, Dr Minnie Liddell
People are similarly unaware, says Dr Minnie, that it takes a lot of time for a turtle to mature and reach adulthood, let alone having the potential to live a very long life.
“Perhaps if we are able to educate people on these aspects and also let them know what a significant role these creatures play in the ecosystem, especially with regard to a country like Maldives, it could create a bigger impact.”
This is not an emotional appeal – clarified Dr Minnie. Turtles are a huge part of ocean and reef health, and, she said, adding that there is scientific proof to back this.
“Support them, because they support us.”
Conservation and creating awareness amounts to a big chunk of the work undertaken by Dr Minnie and her team.
There is a lot of interaction and outreach involved in conservation work. However, as the global pandemic continues to rage on, for the most part, people have become restricted to individual islands.
Unlike in the past, there are no signs of the usual turtle festivals conducted across the country, to spur youth into action. Nor are Olive Ridley’s advocates able to invite school students over, to experience the rehabilitation center for themselves.
Dr Minnie acknowledges that it is always better to see their work in person, as it may then carry a more meaningful impact. Nevertheless, she and her team report that they are making the best of a gloomy situation by posting regular updates on social media.
“We are pretty active on Facebook and Instagram and regularly update on turtles who are in the center, including surgical content. In addition, we do livestream talks, the most recent being held in Dhivehi, to broaden our reach even more.”Veterinary Surgeon from the United Kingdom, Dr Minnie Liddell
Speaking on the adverse effects of the pandemic, she said that among some of the biggest issues faced due to COVID-19, and the travel restriction that followed, was a vast decline in the number of turtles sent to the centre for treatment.
Due to restrictions, particularly last year, there was very little boat traffic. Since turtles are commonly found by boats that travel back and forth between islands, very few were rescued. Between April and September 2020, they had only 6 turtles, that too from washing up.
Normally, in that period, the center would receive between 20 to 30 turtles.
Although some of the rescue centres’ patients travel to them by speed boat, most arrive via seaplane. The Olive Ridley Project holds a partnership with Tran-Maldivian Airlines, under which the company flies the turtles to the resort’s rehabilitation centre free of charge.
Another unfortunate COVID-spurred obstacle was a drop in the number of donations made to the project and its center.
Dr Minnie noted that a lot of their work depends on generous donations from guests, and with borders being closed for a long time in 2020, and arrivals only starting to pick up, they were not receiving nearly as many donations compared to the usual.
Not only that, the numerous volunteers who assist in the day to day tasks of the center found themselves unable to do so due to travel bans between islands.
The rescue center has an ongoing internship program for Maldivians over 18 years of age, who are interested in learning about sea turtle conservation. Despite the setbacks of the pandemic, they have been keeping the program afloat.
Every three months, a new intern is selected, who then has the chance to become heavily involved in the day to day work of the center and also closely assist Dr Minne in surgical procedures.
Dr Minnie hopes that during her time here, she will be able to teach as much as possible and foster more awareness.
“Maldives is a wonderful place to work in, especially because the people are so very passionate and dedicated to issues, such as conservation.”