On Lampedusa a "special hospital" for sea turtles

by Rosy Matrangolo

Daniela Freggi threw her still in the sea, seeing on the horizon off Lampedusa a great love and an urgent vocation, that of taking care of the sea turtles that have long ceased to crowd these crystalline and ferocious waters.

Sea turtles enrich the biodiversity of the Mediterranean but their life in our waters is threatened by several fronts.

> The massive presence of plastic in the sea is lethal since ingested by these marine reptiles can cause suffocation.

> Even human activities such as fishing or tourism can be dangerous: according to WWF data in the Mediterranean, thousands of specimens are accidentally caught in fishermen's nets and it is estimated they are about 40, 000 every year.

In Lampedusa, however, for years there has been a Sea Turtle Recovery Center which deals with recovering, curing and releasing these injured or life threatening animals. Daniela Freggi, the head of the center, told us about this and we asked her to tell us a little about her.

Daniela, how did your passion for the environment, the sea, and sea turtles come about?

It is a question that makes me go back to my adolescence, when for the work of my father, I had the opportunity to live in Mogadishu : the sea was the horizon and it is probably there that I realized I could not stay away. By sea I mean the infinite and blue expanse, not the beaches, and of the sea I was immediately intrigued by its creatures, mostly mysterious, because they live in a world completely different from ours.

It is instead thanks to my zoology professor, Roberto Argano, the first in Italy to be interested in sea turtles, that I developed the interest and attention to this endangered species ... but it is thanks to the sea turtles the love and passion that they slowly aroused in me, conquering me for the stubbornness, the strength, the obstinacy that this animal shows in so many situations, capable of resisting incredible mutilations, but fragile in the face of a few grams of abandoned plastic man.

What is the daily work in the recovery center?

Every year we host around 100-150 turtles in our center, today the tanks host 16 patients and since the beginning of 2018 we have already reached 60 animals.

Generally the main causes of hospitalization are related to the interaction with human activities, first of all fishing: fish hooks and above all put at risk the digestive tract of the turtles and the most frequent intervention that our team of veterinarians carries out is the inguinal access to extract the line from the intestine, an intervention developed by Prof. Antonio Di Bello, of the Department of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Bari.

Depending on the severity of the injuries, or the patients' health status, convalescence can last from 2 weeks to a few months .

What are the most dangerous human activities for the survival of sea turtles in the Mediterranean?

The main danger for sea turtles is represented by fishing activities . The nets risk prolonging beyond their ability the apnea of ​​the turtle caught, making it drown, the lines of the hooks cause dramatic injuries to the fins, the neck - or worse - to the intestine when they are caught by mistake in swordfish and tuna fishing .

But also the pollution caused by the plastic, mistaken for jellyfish, food of which the turtles go greedy, is the cause of very serious traumas. The occupation of sandy shores, where turtles would like to spawn on summer nights, dramatically reduces the possibility of guaranteeing future generations, climate change endangers the balance of turtle populations, altering the percentage of females and males but also changing the cycle of prey which turtles feed on. All these factors are bringing the world's turtles to the brink of extinction.

Who takes care of them? How do you keep and support your turtle care and monitoring network?

At our hospital, besides my daily presence, we can count on volunteers, who are obviously concentrated in the summer period, who together with me carry out every task for the recovery of turtles, from feeding, to washing the tanks, to the therapies to be administered .

But above all, the work of raising awareness of fishermen is important, to transform them into guardian angels who, meeting them in difficulty, retrieve them and deliver them to specialized structures.

We believe in the importance of d ivulgation towards the thousands of summer visitors, to increase the awareness that every citizen should have to improve our environment and relationship with the environment, the only home we have for now and which unfortunately we are not absolutely taking care ...

I must also add that even though our activities in Lampedusa have been going on for over 28 years, we have never been able to count on any minimum official contribution. Although our center is an international point of reference in turtle care, the only economic support comes from volunteers and summer visitors, who with a free offer allow you to buy the medical equipment you need to perform over 120 surgical procedures and subsequent therapies.

Right now we are facing the most serious emergency of the center : not only for almost 2 years have we got energy thanks to a generator and the fuel we have to buy daily for its operation, but this year the current municipal administration has decided to let us close and replace with a structure created in collaboration with the Zooprofilattico institute and the University of Palermo.

It is undoubtedly a question of two prestigious institutions, but with little experience on turtles: our impression is that we have taken the chance of EU funding and that these species can be an economic driver, but the risk is that we can lose all the professionalism acquired in almost 30 years of work: our center is recognized worldwide, we are in fact the coordinators of the Sea Turtle Medicine Workshop that is hosted every year in the ISTS Symposium.

What is this commitment that keeps you connected to this island for so many years?

I'm not Sicilian, but I fell in love with the beauty and depth of this unique region in the world. In reality Lampedusa is "little" Sicilian, grown so far from the mainland, and has so little shared with it.

Lampedusa is in fact a bit of a small paradise where every problem is diluted, where the difficulties take on another aspect, where there are no dangers and poverty that bring the regional economy to its knees, and represents an oasis of serenity and development tourist that guarantees a certain general well-being.

Surely it is a land far from my family affections, and the commitment I dedicate to the study and care of sea turtles is the real bond with this little island in the middle of the Mediterranean.

I have always tried to take care of the weakest, and for me the last ones, after children, the elderly, the sick, the poor, in war they are always the animals, to which we do not recognize the same our rights.

And among all the animals, perhaps the turtles are the most distant from us, with reactions and problems so different from ours: they are a planet to discover, and this challenge so complex and problematic pushes me not to give up and persevere .

Much of the charm that turtles continue to give me is connected to the passion, to the generous and infinite commitment that I see in the volunteers, who at their expense come to lend a hand, with humility and so much altruism.

I consider them the true mind, the true soul and the arms of this small miracle of volunteering which is our Recovery Center, and I am always moved by looking at their tired but smiling faces, whether they are playing the role of guide for the visitors of the center, whether they are struggling to take care of the tanks and the hospital, or who follow the return of sea turtles that have completed their convalescence ... they are wonderful, exceptional people who put their heart into what they offer, an example for a better world to leave to the next generations!

How can you support your reality and follow your activities?

Our daily reality is made up of many challenges, surely the economic support is what we miss the most, but today the greatest danger is represented by the difficulty of finding a suitable location, in accordance with, spacious and equipped with access to water of sea.

On Lampedusa it seems an unattainable mirage, but we will not stop looking. Of course, economic support is needed to restructure or design a location that can guarantee the conditions for the regional and national recognition of the competent bodies, but we never stop hoping and persevering: the turtles deserve every possible effort!

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