Tourists handling captive sea turtles face health risks

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.

Symptoms from these bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites don’t always show themselves immediately and on the surface can seem like gastrointestinal disorders or flu, but seriously affected people can suffer from septicaemia, pneumonia, meningitis and acute renal failure.
The biggest bacterial culprits are E.Coli and Salmonella, although there are some lower infection threats from viruses such as Vibrio. Fungi and parasites represent the area of least concern.*

Holiday experiences that expose tourists to sea turtles may allow people to pick up the animals from confined pools, although some even allow tourists to eat turtle meat raised in intensive farm-like conditions.

The paper included a case study from the Cayman Turtle Farm (CTF) in Grand Cayman, which is unique as the only facility in the world to rear sea-turtles as meat available to the public, as well as being open to the thousands of tourists which pour off the cruise ships onto the island every day.

The intensive and cramped conditions which the farm works under – in both the production and front of house tourist areas – can serve to concentrate these pathogens and increase risk to those people visiting the Farm.

Lead author Clifford Warwick of the Emergent Disease Foundation said:
“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, who funded this research, has been attempting to work with the facility to raise awareness of sea turtle welfare and to raise standards which will ultimately mean a transition away from the intensive commercial production of these endangered animals.

Dr Neil D’Cruze, WSPA Wildlife Campaign Lead said: “WSPA is unsurprised to hear that the handling of captive Green sea turtles poses a potential threat to the visiting public. This
independent peer reviewed scientific paper demonstrates that the recent assessment of the Farm’s operations is inherently flawed.”

Clifford Warwick expressed concerns that awareness of the potential human health threats posed by facilities such as the CTF may not be well understood by healthcare professionals and public awareness may be even lower, stating that overcoming this would be key to prevent and control the spread of sea turtle-related diseases.

Due to this low awareness people rarely trace back or attribute their illness to a recent experience handling wild sea turtles. This, along with the often generic nature of the symptoms, makes it hard to track the full distribution of these pathogens.

Dr D’Cruze added: “We hope that the Cayman Turtle Farm recognizes that the only real way to completely remove the human health threat will be to end the ‘unique wildlife encounter’ currently at the facility and takes steps to do so, which will also immediately improve the lives of the turtles in their care.”


For more information on the WSPA campaign, interviews requests and images please contact:
Neena Dhaun, Media Manager, WSPA International
44 20 7239 0699

Lead author, Clifford Warwick can be contacted directly

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 WSPA :
The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) is one of the world’s leading animal welfare organizations. We have been protecting animals around the world more than 30 years. We passionately believe that animal welfare matters. At WSPA, we will always expose and oppose the exploitation and suffering of animals. We believe animal cruelty must end, whether an animal is living in the wild, on a farm, in our community or affected by a disaster. We also act at a global level, using our United Nations consultative status to give animals a voice.

About the publishers:
RSM 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.