A team of researchers under the Maharashtra forest department along with an architecture student developed and fitted first-of-its-kind silicone-based prosthetic flipper for an Olive Ridley turtle at Vengurla, Sindhudurg.
Over the course of the past month, a team led by Dr Santosh Walvekar, veterinarian under the Kolhapur circle of the Maharashtra forest department, studied international methods on how to invent and non-surgically fit a 270 gram and 13-inch prosthetic flipper for the large turtle from scratch, and managed to succeed in their efforts. The team comprised veterinary students Vanshika Kamble and Sanika Sawant; zoologist Rushikesh Mestri; architect Chandrakant Halyal from JJ School of Architecture, Mumbai; and other volunteers.
Maharashtra forest department and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), an international non-profit organisation working on turtle conservation, said this was the first such successful prosthetic flipper fitted on a turtle in India so far. TSA India is supporting the team with their counterparts from South Carolina, the Unites States for the rehabilitation of the turtle.
Last month, a 12-year-old male Olive Ridley turtle was rescued from Vengurla coastline by Shashikant Vengurlekar, a local, after it was found stuck in the fishing net. “Three-fourth of the turtle’s left front flipper had been cut off while the hind flipper was also brutally damaged in the process of disentanglement from the net,” said Vengurlekar, adding that he contacted wildlife rescue group Konkan Wildlife Rescue Forum, which in turn contacted the forest department.
Forest officers said they transported the turtle to their range office in Kudal but there was very little chance of its survival. “We contacted Dr Walvekar for help,” said an officer.
Walvekar said emergency treatment was provided to the turtle for around 10 days at the transit treatment centre in Kolhapur. “Only then the turtle was stable and began self-feeding again. We were positive that the turtle would survive but were worried about its condition as its right hind flipper was badly injured while the front left one wasn’t there,” he said.
Once sure that the turtle could survive, Walvekar gathered the team and began researching prosthetic flippers. “We came across social media videos where such experiments had been successful,” he said.
Walvekar then got in touch with Halyal who drew up measurements of the prosthetic flipper based on a mirror image of its existing flipper. The team designed and developed two clay moulds. Then Walvekar met with silicone manufacturers and acquired the equipment required for the experiment. Following this, with the help of Krushnat Powar from a neighbouring dental lab, the team got an impression of the portion of the cut flipper. “We then placed the silicone by removing the clay from the mould, and finally attached two steel plates inside the silicone that would help the turtle move its flipper while swimming. The prosthetic flipper could be placed and used by the turtle as one fourth of the original flipper (stump) was still remaining. The fact that this turtle had a stump made it a special case,” said Walvekar.
On October 27, the team placed the turtle in a large tank and the turtle was able to swim and stay afloat. “We realised our experiment had succeeded,” he said.
Halyal then got in touch with TSA India and shared videos and images of the design. “Though there have been various efforts to fit prosthetic limbs, especially across south India, this is the first such successful experiment in India. We are evaluating how this animal can be rehabilitated with help from international veterinarians from TSA’s sea turtle centre in South Carolina, and we are proud to see India achieving this feat,” said Shailendra Singh, programme director, TSA India.
V Clement Ben, chief conservator of forest (Kolhapur), Maharashtra forest department, said, “For the first time an effort has been made by our veterinary team to treat the damaged limbs of an Olive Ridley turtle. The effort has been successful and the animal is recuperating.”
DAHANU VETERINARIANS HAD SUCCESSFULLY FITTED TURTLES WITH FIBERGLASS PROSTHETIC LIMBS IN 2017
While the state forest department and international conservation groups claimed that the silicone-based prosthetic limb was the first for India, Dr Dinesh Vinherkar, in-charge of the Dahanu marine animal rescue centre, had non-surgically fitted two turtles with prosthetic flippers made of fibreglass in February 2017. It was termed the Dahanu flipper, similar to the Jaipur foot for human stumps.
“We must realise that these artificial flippers only help certain turtles with stumps. The prosthetic limb helps exercise the other three flippers through physiotherapy. However, such turtles should not be released with the artificial flipper as they cannot be used after a certain time and do not serve the larger purpose. We are now working on other methods for faster rehabilitation for such turtles,” said Dr Vinherkar.