Accessibility Page Navigation
Style sheets must be enabled to view this page as it was intended.
For tortoise, terrapin and turtle care and conservation


John E. Cooper, DTVM, FRCPath, FIBiol, FRCVS and Margaret E. Cooper, LLB, FLS
Wildlife Health Services, PO Box 153, Wellingborough, Northants. NN8 2ZA.
E-mail: NGAGI{at}

The following article is a transcript from a recording of the presentation given by John and Margaret Cooper to the 7th BCG Northern Symposium at Chester in 2001. It gives a very informal insight into their important work, and is punctuated with their own personal anecdotes.

We travel a great deal, have lived overseas on many occasions and still go back overseas whenever we can. We have a shared interest in animals; in fact, in many ways our life-cycles are very much like the migrating birds which follow routes down western and eastern Africa. We would like to orientate our lecture around our legal and veterinary approach to working with chelonians, and indeed other reptiles, particularly our work in East Africa where we’ve spent a lot of our lives – in Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and elsewhere.

We have a broad interest in all types of animals, and we recognise that humans, whether we like it or not, are an increasingly important part of the equation; so whether we work with reptiles or other species we should be concerned with their interrelationships with human beings. John’s own background as a vet means not only having an interest in individual animals, but also, increasingly, being involved with populations, which means working with herpetologists, both professional and amateur. This particularly includes fields such as health monitoring, in other words looking at populations in terms of infectious disease and genetic health; and getting involved with colleagues from other disciplines in the translocation of reptiles, i.e. moving animals from one place to another and putting populations back into the wild. There is a lot of work being done, and very often there is a need for a veterinary component.

Margaret is interested in the law relating to animals in any country, and as tortoise keepers know, a whole range of laws applies to tortoises. There is no choice in law: the laws are there and you are supposed to keep them. But you can add another layer in terms of what we can fairly loosely call ethics – not deeply philosophical, but practical ethics to enable you to produce guidelines. This can enable you to keep tortoises to a high standard, which can actually be better than the basic requirements of law, and many such guidelines have been written.

We have mainly visited East Africa, especially Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda – in fact, all round Lake Victoria - and Madagascar. Our first destination in the early days was Kenya. John was soon involved with Nairobi Snake Park (which also includes tortoises) and they benefited from four years of free veterinary help after he leaned over the snake pit asking "Have you got a vet here – do you want one?" We are still involved there, helping to supply cages and trying to find money for training. It was there that they discovered that where tortoises can burrow out, snakes will follow. We actually took on assorted snakes in our own home.

We then had to come back from Kenya for family reasons, but were never more than one room’s distance from a tortoise. Jonathan Leakey, with whom we were involved in milking snakes for their venom, sent us a selection of African tortoises that we kept and reared and used for education. Our interest in tortoises great and small continued, and on one occasion an undignified dead giant tortoise was carried through the streets on its way for a post mortem examination. On completion, rather than be wasted, we had it prepared by a taxidermist, and it was then displayed at the Darwin museum in Kent. The museum display has now been changed and it is not needed, so it is in our living room looking for a home!

This was an Aldabran tortoise, from the island of Aldabra in the Indian Ocean, and this leads us on to Tanzania. John first worked there from 1966-7 doing VSO as a volunteer vet, and we went back in 1991, initially for a two-year period. We were based in central Tanzania at Morogoro, with John teaching at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, which is the only facility they have for training vets in the whole country. This was built by the Danes in the late 1970s and is very well equipped. They soon realised that we were interested in reptiles, and there was a niche to fill because many East Africans have grown up in towns and know very little about their indigenous species.

The big breakthrough concerned Monitor lizards (Varanus niloticus): we found in the first week that they would come out of drainage ducts around the university and make their way into classrooms. Until we arrived the poor creatures would be clobbered on the head and thrown out, or in a few cases, eaten. This was a wonderful opportunity to learn from these lizards and to teach students, and a number were rescued for study. Blood samples were taken so that a Tanzanian veterinary haematologist could do blood counts and examine blood smears; then weighing and measuring, removing ectoparasites and marking were done before releasing back into the drain. A number of these were recovered later for further study. Though not much by Western standards, this was a step in the right direction towards teaching Tanzanian students, and, perhaps more importantly, the staff, that these reptiles were fun, interesting and could be a source of academic professional development.

Progressing from there, it was quickly noticed that John was happy to look at reptiles, so other reptiles arrived or we went out to see them. At the Catholic Mission about 100 km from the university, snakes are caught under licence and used in traditional dancing with tribal costumes. Many of the snakes suffered injuries and had mouth infections, and we quickly realised they were a source of information for disease investigation: not the cutting edge of veterinary medicine, but nevertheless very important work. At that stage we were already getting a few calls for someone from the Faculty to see tortoises. These were mainly leopard tortoises (Geochelone pardalis) kept by Europeans living locally, so we always made a point of taking students or young graduates along to build up their knowledge and self-confidence. Many actually developed a personal interest in these creatures.

On one occasion we had a real windfall when we were asked to rescue Bell’s hingeback (Kinixys belliana) and leopard tortoises which had had a rather rough time in a local collection. The man who was running the collection had returned to Europe and abandoned the tortoises, and there was a large crocodile in a nearby pool. The crocodile had devoured many of them, and others had lost the ends of limbs. Although this was a sad story, it was a wonderful opportunity to involve students and staff in the rescue and rehabilitation of these tortoises, and to develop further their interest in reptiles, not just as creatures you see out in the bush, but as animals of importance to Tanzania and to various ecosystems.

When you get a large number of tortoises like this coming into captivity, say 10 or 12, what do you do? The first thing is to invite your European and African friends round for a dinner party, but you don’t tell them until after you have fed them well - and given them wine - that you have some tortoises that need to be weighed, measured and, in some cases, have some repair done. A British aid worker doing car repairs as part of an aid organisation didn’t realise that his skills would be used on these tortoises! This was very much Third World repair of tortoise shells, but better than doing no repair at all.

The second thing is to enthuse the students – in fact, cattle, sheep, goats, dogs with rabies etc. had become rather mundane to them, and they were starting to develop an interest in reptiles and other wildlife because of the monitor lizards, snakes and so on that we had introduced to them. So we were able to reach the stage where the final year veterinary students could have a tortoise apiece in order to learn and develop proper health monitoring: to weigh, to measure, to do nasal washings, to look for organisms for runny nose syndrome etc., to check faecal samples – all the things that we are doing in field projects. In this way we produced veterinary graduates with a genuine interest in the subject, and we pride ourselves on the fact that they may be the only ones in Africa who can do this and who know how to deal with chelonians in field investigations. (We also had terrapins, but that’s another story!)

Needless to say, we kept many of these tortoises, and they did what tortoises always do. The leopard tortoises made a lot of noise when copulating and the kinixys were more discreet, but the end result is the same. The result is, of course, that if you have a large garden, as we did in Tanzania, you have umpteen sites fenced off to keep mongooses and others away from where eggs have been laid. We ended up with a garden full of eggs! Our paper on the captive breeding of K. belliana was published in Testudo in 1994. Our studies included observations on egg-laying, and particularly on how much injuries impaired the timing of the process, which could be important in the wild. We weighed and measured eggs, and we studied hatchlings, which emerge muddy in the rainy season - many of which just dry off and clean themselves, but some we cleaned in order to get measurements. We did follow-up studies of the growth of the small tortoises, and again you can let invited visitors help! One such was Mark Evans (now a qualified vet) and his friend, thinking they were staying a night with us on their way through East Africa, and three days later they had produced wonderful data on all our tortoises!

We soon had a garden full of birds and tortoises, and our Tanzanian gardener even made a sign for our premises pointing to "Tortoise Avenue". We wanted, where possible, to return the tortoises to the wild, and because of our health monitoring we were reasonably confident that they would not go the same way as the desert and gopher tortoises which had been released into the wild in the USA and took an upper respiratory infection with them. We thought we had screened them well enough to prevent this happening, but then our biologist colleagues asked if we were sure we were not putting a different race or sub-species back into the wrong area, and, as a result, none of these was intentionally returned to the wild. A few made their own way back, but most remained at semi-liberty where they could roam but not have contact with free-living tortoises, which was probably the best result but rather a disappointing one from our point of view.

A rather similar situation applied when a large number of tortoises were imported from Tanzania to the Netherlands in the early 90s. They were mostly pancake tortoises (Malacochersus tornieri), and being covered by CITES and having no permits, in accordance with the regulations, the Dutch authorities sent them back to Tanzania. But the Tanzanians did not have appropriate facilities for such returnees, and they had to be kept in a less suitable area, at high altitude, and many of them died. The only good outcome was that students and graduates became involved once again, but this sort of incident highlights the problem of how or whether to send confiscated tortoises back to their country of origin.

After two years in Tanzania we moved on to Rwanda for the period 1993-95, but this was punctuated by war and genocide. Unfortunately, tortoises were eclipsed by gorillas and guerrillas!

Next we were in the Middle East for just over a year. At the zoo in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, there are a large number of sulcata tortoises, which are hyperactive, dig lots of burrows (which collapse on the tortoises) and produce copious young – nothing seems to inhibit them!

One of our long-term interests has been Jersey Zoo, where we have been teaching and have tutored on some of their summer schools since the 1980s. As BCG members know, they have a number of tortoises there, but they also have many in situ conservation projects including one in Madagascar for the Angonoka or ploughshare tortoise (Geochelone yniphora), one of most endangered species in the world. Here the staff needed guidance and training for monitoring and health checks. Joanna Durbin, the head of the project, with her understanding of the culture and psychology of local people, helped them to appreciate the benefit to their communities of the wildlife around them and to implement conservation projects. We were primarily concerned with the ploughshare tortoise, which can be very combative, and the males fight for supremacy in courtship. During combat they use the long projection on the front of their shells under the chin to flip over opponents. The conqueror continues to the next opponent, aiming to become the top tortoise, and we were there at just the right time to observe the various stages.

At the Ampijoroa field station, with forest behind where lemurs could also be studied, we were dealing with a captive-bred population, and gave lectures plus practical work. One particular brown lemur came in to disrupt our lectures, and in the evenings others would pass through between the forest and the lakes where we were staying. Our lectures on biology and legislation had to be given in French in the heat and noise of a building under construction! Practical work was what the staff wanted most, because in a few weeks a small number of tortoises were being released into the wild with radio transmitters, and the IUCN guidelines advocate health monitoring beforehand in case the animals transfer infection into the wild or pick something up themselves. John demonstrated collecting samples and doing microscope work, and included endoscopy in the health checks. Film containers were used for sample pots, leaving money for other vital needs. We took the equipment with us to enable them all to be micro-chipped for security and research, so all were identifiable. Blood samples were taken from the tail, and these had to go back to the UK to be studied. Even if the animal is not listed on CITES there may still be paperwork, and some countries may have their own legal requirements. It is not just whole animals that are covered by the CITES regulations, but also parts and derivatives, so permits may be required for samples, which takes time. When sending by post there are also strict regulations on packaging of pathological specimens. EU Directives on this are very similar to but more stringent than CITES requirements. Joanna included a lady from the Ministry in the training, second in command in issuing CITES permits, and by the time she had finished the course she understood perfectly why we wanted to take samples from one of their most endangered species out of the country. By the end of the next day she had organised all the permits we needed - not only for CITES, but also local permits because the animals were indigenous and protected by their own wildlife laws. As we had to leave for Europe next morning, we were lucky to have speeded up the administrative system, when it can sometimes be so difficult to get that all-important piece of paper.

This work started two and a half years ago, and health monitoring in Madagascar continues with the zoo vets from Jersey going out there from time to time, giving refresher courses and maintaining protocols.

We then went back to Uganda where we have done most of our East African work during the past two or three years. Makerere University, set up by the British in colonial times, has a wonderful history and from the start was a multiracial facility also encouraging women. They had a terrible time under Idi Amin and Milton Obote but have now started to recover. We are both visiting members of staff in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, in the appropriately named WARM department that we helped to set up. WARM stands for "Wildlife and Animal Resources Management". Funding is always a problem, but a building has been acquired, a vehicle is available and we regularly collect money from kind people (including those who have worked in Uganda) for things such as tyres for the vehicle. The department is playing a key role in training Africans - especially Ugandans, both undergraduates and graduates (including biologists as well as vets) - to deal with wildlife competently in the field. We are lucky that we often teach the MSc in Wildlife Health, and the Diploma courses, in idyllic surroundings - for example, where better to teach water quality testing than in a lake with hippos, crocodiles and two genera of freshwater terrapins? There are regular field trips, and although the emphasis from the Western world often tends to be on large mammals, we try to open the eyes of students to other aspects – for example, turning over logs to find invertebrates, toads, small reptiles and so on to illustrate the importance of bio-diversity and food chains.

In addition to the routine teaching, we have developed a programme of workshops that last for one or two days. In our Crocodile Workshop in 1999, training was provided using live crocodiles, plus dead ones for post mortem examinations, to educate both those who come across them in the wild and those who have them in captivity, e.g. for crocodile farming. One has to accept ranching for skins etc. for what it is – it cannot be changed overnight, but one can make changes to welfare and conservation.

We do see chelonians in Uganda in the wild, but they seem to be getting fewer. While driving back to Kampala on our last trip, out of the corner of her eye Margaret thought she saw a tortoise on the roadside (which is unusual) and called to the driver to stop. At first it looked like a stone, but when we got nearer it was indeed a tortoise, struggling to get up a bank. It was injured, but with vets and students in the car it was the luckiest in Uganda that day because all WARM’s resources were focussed on this one tortoise! It had a small injury near the hinge, and was treated and released back into the bush. We also gave it a full health check and found it had two tropical ticks, as African tortoises nearly always do. From the viewpoint of populations, this was actually more important than the minor injury, because there is increasing evidence that the ticks of tropical tortoises can carry other parasites. These parasites are rarely a problem in the wild, but can be when they come into captivity. (Currently, there is great concern in the Caribbean over the tick-borne disease heartwater, which can kill sheep and goats; some of the ticks that can transmit the disease come in on reptiles imported from Africa, and millions of dollars are spent in the southern USA keeping this out because the consequences could be devastating). The ticks from our tortoise were removed for identification, and we would urge BCG members finding tortoise ticks to report them.

As we have said, chelonians in Uganda are more often seen in captivity than in the wild. At the Entebbe Zoo (Uganda Wildlife Education Centre) we have trained staff and given advice on raising husbandry standards for tortoises. Courses are planned for which funding has to be sought. Literature is always needed, such as books, journals and newsletters, and these contributions are invaluable both in stimulating interest in the subject and in making vets, students and keepers aware of where to turn for further help.


Cooper, J.E. & Cooper, M.E. (1994). Some observations on reproductive behaviour in hinge-back tortoises. Testudo 4 (1) 43 – 48.

Cooper, J.E. & Cooper, M.E. (1996). Veterinary and legal implications of the use of snakes in traditional dancing in East Africa. British Herpetological Society Bulletin 55, 29-34.

Testudo Volume Five Number Four 2002