Wounded and barely alive after several traumatic hours, crammed inside a bag bound for Bangkok, many of the Indian star tortoises seized by Customs enforcers at Thiruvananthapuram International Airport here on Monday face a long road to recovery. Among the 445 hatchlings brought to the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo hospital, five died, 357 were deemed fit enough to be returned to the Forest Department officials on Tuesday morning and the condition of 83 was described as ‘moribund.’

These unfortunate ones, kept at the bottom of the bag, are being carefully monitored by the veterinary staff at the city zoo, several being unlikely to survive. The injuries to the 83 being tended include fractured shells and abscessed eyes.

The tortoises were in an incredibly stressed physiological state. So the staff at the hospital fear intervening yet as any prodding or rigorous examination could lead to further damage. On the first day of their stay at the zoo, the tortoises were generally left alone and were ensured plenty of space, food and water.

The veterinary team led by Jacob Alexander will analyse the condition of each of them and separate the healthier ones from the rest to reduce the chance of an infection spreading through the entire group.

The ones that recover immediately may be handed back to the Forest Department to be released into the wild. Those that take longer will be quarantined. Officials said it was unwise to release them, since there was a risk of contaminating the natural ecosystem as a pathogen could still be in the animals’ system. Moreover, the released tortoises were unlikely to survive on their own after being reared artificially.

Permanent shelter

Zoo officials are also considering the possibility of permanently accommodating the surviving ones. There is already one Indian star tortoise at the zoo’s reptile house. Having enough to spare would mean significantly raising the bargaining capacity of the city zoo during exchanges. One senior official remarked that a severe handicap for the zoo in procuring more animals was that they did not have enough animals that other zoos were interested in. The tortoise was rare and only the Mysore zoo was said to own one.