An interview with: Mathieu Barret

Kelonia logo. Image.

Mathieu Barret. Image.
Mathieu Barret, Head of the care centre, with a juvenile loggerhead sea turtle.

Where is Kélonia based?

We are located in Réunion Island, a small French island lost in the Indian Ocean – between Mauritius and Madagascar.

How long has the centre been running for?

Kélonia Care Centre was firstly a turtle farm back in the 80s, and was totally rehabilitated to promote sea turtle conservation and a natural heritage link with them in 2006.

Which species of sea turtle do you see?

From the 5 species that inhabit the southwest of the Indian Ocean, we see green and hawksbill sea turtles closer to the coast, as well as loggerheads and olive ridley sea turtles, more commonly in open sea.

quarantine tanks. Image.
Quarantine Tanks.
vet in clinic. Image.
Taking a radiograph.

Approximately, how many cases do you see each year?

Roughly 40 total cases per year. 20% of these are unfortunately dead before admission.

How many patients can you care for at one given time?

We have eight quarantine tanks and four huge pools of 4oom³.

Turtle waiting release. Image.
View of a patient at sunset, ready to be released the following day.

What are the most common injuries and illnesses you treat for?

The most common cause of injury is due to by-catch from long line fisheries, which represents 70% of our caseload. We also have entries from boat strikes, and ghost net and fishing gear entanglements. More than 80% of all patients have plastic in their faeces or their guts when necropsies are performed.

Overview of the big pools for the resident turtles.

How is your medical team composed?

Dr Schneider has been working with us for 14 years now. He has got a clinic with an x-ray machine, a surgery room and the lab for the analyses of samples. Here, at Kélonia, we have a team of 27 people, from which seven work full time.

Does your centre carry out any research?

Yes, we carry out several research projects thanks to the partnerships with the International Institute in Réunion – such as the University ofRéunion.

We also study:

  • Impacts of human activity on marine turtles
  • Pathologies
  • Monitoring plastic ingestion
  • Impact of accidental catch on population numbers

For example, right now, we are doing bio-logging work with the Laboratory of Cyclones and Atmosphere (LACY). The purpose is quite simple, the turtles are tagged and it allows us to follow their trajectory. It also allows scientists to log the sea temperature and to improve their cyclone prediction model. This is a great collaboration.

Tracking turtles map. Image.
Tagged turtle trajectories from the STORM-OI program.

What are your main goals?

Kélonia Care Centre has a lot of purposes: sea turtle and environmental preservation; to keep developing conservation and research action on a regional, national and international front (as sea turtles migrate); and also to improve the care of injured sea turtles.

muscle tissue sampling. Image.
Muscle tissue sampling.
Release. Image
Public release of a tagged sea turtle after rehabilitation.

What is one of your most interesting or rewarding case?

I think all cases are rewarding because they are so different, and the turtles are also different and have unique behaviour. Every case reveals how resilient they can be. But if I have to pick one, I will tell you the story of Austral. She is a juvenile hawksbill, that was around 5kg when she was admitted to the rehabilitation centre. She presented with a severely injured right front flipper, bleeding at its proximal portion, and attached by only 2cm of soft tissue. The caudal edge happened to be vascularised enough to preserve the flipper. Surgical reconstruction was performed, the soft tissue was debrided and sutured, and an external skeletal fixator was placed to promote apposition of the two parts of the flipper. A surgical wire was also used to improve coaptation. She adapted well to the external fixator. We noticed some bone density loss, but an antibiotic treatment improved the osteolysis problem. The fixator was removed four months later and after one year, the function of the affected limb was back to normal. The patient was returned to the ocean. It was a really challenging case to preserve the damaged flipper. We even wrote an article about this case (https://doi.org/10.1002/vrc2.22)

Share your favourite fact about sea turtles or why you love sea turtles?

I have always loved animals and nature in general. I think I really fell in love with sea turtles during my masters’ internship, at Kélonia. I was doing a field research about the incubation conditions of green turtles and there she was, this huge green turtle making her way up the beach, trying to find the best place to lay her legs. It was so spectacular to see the dexterity of her back flippers, and the smoothness with which she dug her nest. This moment in particular is the moment I have in my mind.

Turtle surgery. Image.
Surgery being performed on a green sea turtle under our care.
Education centre. Image.
Public gallery at Kélonia.

In what ways can members of your local community help sea turtles?

I think that every small action in favour of the environment counts, so people here can get involved in field actions like revegetation, beach clean ups, or turtle surveys in the ocean with the photo identification programme. And they should also contact us when they see an injured or weak sea turtle. Lastly, everyone is welcome to visit us at Kélonia!

Environmental education. Image
Outreach & Education.
Turtle release. Image.
Curieuse, a loggerhead sea turtle released, with an Argos tag (STORM-OI), after 3 months of care, supported by her godparents.

Thank you to Mathieu and Kélonia for this insightful and engaging interview.

Please watch the video interview here.

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