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Posted by nelson on August 11, 2017

The history and work of Portugal’s first Rehabilitation Centre for Marine Species

Sea turtles, dolphins, small whales, terrapins, otters and seals are but a few of the wild animals who find a second chance at the Zoomarine Centre for Marine Species, which has been operating since 1991, according to Élio Vicente, marine biologist and director of operations at this safe haven. “Most wash ashore, many are found in creeks or rivers, where they’re seized by the Portuguese State,” which means the centre works 24 hours a day, all year round.

There is a marine biologist and a veterinary nurse on site, who are supported by a veterinary, whenever the need arises. When the animals are first admitted, they stay in quarantine. They have no contact with other animals residing in the waterpark, nor with the staff who works there. Their recovery is planned so that they can return to their natural habitat as soon as possible. “And, if for some reason, the animals can’t be returned to the wild, they never stay with us. Our goal isn’t to host these animals to later add them to our collections. The Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests (ICNF) decides where they will be relocated. More often than not, they’re placed in other zoological parks for reproduction or go to sanctuaries. For all intents and purposes, we’re only trustees. Once these animals become wards of the State, they’re responsible for their safety, and since there are no public rehabilitation centres, they establish partnerships with entities like Zoomarine. This safe haven is, at the moment, one of only two in the country,” he says.

“When we first started in Portugal, in 1991, there was no one else doing this work. We soon realised something had to be done to help these animals. We began by building portable pools in our facilities, with roofs for shade. However, we kept receiving more and more cases. Every request was forwarded to us, since, for 15 years, this was the only place in the country where we could try to save a turtle, a dolphin or a seal. After 20 years, we created our own rehabilitation centre, which we inaugurated in 2002,” Élio Vicente recalls.

Turtles are, without a doubt, the animals they find more often. Every year Zoomarine collects “between four and seven, or more”. This is a positive number “as this is the most endangered of all the species we host. Saving even one makes all the difference in terms of preserving nature. Fortunately, the animals we find in greater numbers are also the ones who need help the most”.

Since the beginning of 2017, eight animals have already been admitted, who may stay for weeks or even years. For Élio Vicente, it’s important that the public knows about the work of the safe haven. “The next time someone finds a wild animal in trouble, it’s important that they know we can save it here.”

Cases of wild animals being stranded are higher during the summer. However, the biologist points out that “the assistance provided by Zoomarine is a curtsey. We don’t receive a single cent from the State or any other public entity. And we do so with pride and honour,” he assures.

Élio Vicente also highlights that, while in many places all over the world fishermen are the main threat for turtles, seals and dolphins, here they are the most dedicated community to saving these animals. “We’ve had fishermen stop the toil to come here and deliver injured or at-risk animals they found. This means there’s great awareness in this sector. In the Algarve, fishermen are who save the most turtles and dolphins,” he stresses.

After rehabilitation, the ICNF is informed when an animal is ready to be returned to nature. In the case of sea turtles, the Zoomarine team works with the Navy. “We sail 12 miles of the coast to the south of Portimão and return the turtles to the sea. The terrapins stay in the Ria Formosa Natural Park, and they all leave properly ringed.”

One of this centre’s most impressive success stories is the “delayed return” operation. In 2009, the Zoomarine technicians followed the saga of three giant turtles through the ocean, after returning them to nature. After decades in captivity, and due to the delicate nature of their return and lack of information regarding their chances of survival, Zoomarine decided to attach a satellite transmitter to each specimen. The goal was to collect as much data as possible about their behaviour and migration patterns. “For three years, we taught them to swim, dive and capture live food.”

After being released into the sea, one of the turtles went to Cuba, another went to Mauritania, and the third went to Brazil with only three fins, as it lost a pectoral fin due to a shark bite. “We monitored all their routes and the operation was a complete success,” states Élio Vicente. “This means that, for the first time ever, someone was able to return to nature adult animals who lived in captivity and give these turtles a second chance, after living in zoological parks for over 35 years. This proves that, scientifically, even a turtle with only three fins can live on its own in the wild.”

For more information visit the website http://weprotect.zoomarine.pt/pt/porto-abrigo

By Sara Alves

Photos: Zoomarine

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