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Nine People Die After Eating Sea Turtle Meat

On the Zanzibarian island of Pemba, sea turtle meat is considered a delicacy — but it also, apparently, can fatally poison you.

As the Associated Press and other outlets report, nine people have died and 78 others were hospitalized after eating sea turtle on Pemba, an island in the Zanzibar archipelago in the Indian Ocean.

The veal-tasting meat of green turtles is, like in other coastal communities throughout Asia and Africa, still a delicacy on Zanzibar — despite the endangered status of the animals and, as this incident indicates, its predisposition towards severe and sometimes fatal food poisoning.

Specifically, sea turtle meat can lead to chelonitoxism, a mysterious foodborne illness that can occur when people eat marine turtles.

According to one paper about chelonitoxism from the hawksbill turtle, which is also found in Zanzibar, this type of food poisoning can cause all manner of serious problems, including gastrointestinal issues like nausea, vomiting and ulcers and, even more alarmingly, neurological symptoms like weakness, partial paralysis, and even comas.

As of right now, it's unclear what exact type of turtle the people who died on Pemba ate. But postmortem toxicity reports found that all nine people, which included a mother and three children, had eaten sea turtle before their deaths.

Unfortunately, this is far from the first time such an incident has occurred, including on Pemba itself. As the BBC reported back in November 2021, seven people on the island died after at least five families were said to have eaten the local delicacy.

Though it's clear that chelonitoxism stems from eating sea turtle meat, scientists aren't quite sure what causes it. While scientists believe that chelonitoxism is the result of certain types of algae that sea turtles eat, the lack of definitive origin, as a 2016 paper in the journal Toxicon explains, means no antidote has been found.

With the global poaching trade resulting in the deaths of more than a million sea turtles over 30 years, it's likely that this supposedly-delicious exotic meat has been consumed by lots of people. Given how serious — and mysterious — chelonitoxism remains, however, it may be best not to eat any turtle soup.

More on sea poisoning: China Accused of Pumping Cyanide Into Ocean to Kill Life