One of World’s Rarest Turtles Heading Back to the Wild

Great news from Cambodia, one of the four countries where the Turtle Survival Alliance and its partners are implementing an SOS-funded project to help protect and conserve the South East Asian Terrapins. The Cambodian component of the project, carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Royal Government of Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration announced the release of 21 captive-raised southern river terrapins (Batagur affinis) back into their native habitat in southwest Cambodia.  

Transmitter being fixed on turtle to enable monitoring

Southern river terrapins were believed to be extinct in Cambodia until 2000 when a small population was re-discovered in the Sre Ambel River system. Batagur affinis is considered one of the world's 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles.

The species is still known locally in Cambodia as the "Royal Turtle" because it was historically protected by a royal decree and the eggs were considered a delicacy reserved for the king. More recently, southern river terrapins have been pushed to the brink of extinction largely due to unsustainable harvesting of eggs and adults. Consequently, they exist in small isolated populations and there are only a few wild nesting females left in total.

Furthermore young terrapins are also vulnerable to predators such as water birds and monitor lizards, and to accidental entanglement in fishing gear. For this reason conservation efforts have concentrated on “headstarting” techniques, i.e. after the turtles hatched from protected enclosures on river sandbars they are then transferred to a facility and raised for several years in captivity. This enables them to reach a size where they would be less prone to predation upon release.

Release however, can only happen once the poaching threat on this turtle population is reduced, and the grant provided by SOS supported also the training and roll out of a patrolling system implementing SMART (the Spatial Monitoring And Reporting Tool) for many months before the release was deemed suitable. This precaution ensured that the reintroduction river sites are as secure as possible.

The turtles were chosen for release based on a genetic analysis carried out at the National University of Singapore supported by Wildlife Reserves Singapore. This analysis determined how closely the turtles were related to one another. The turtles most distantly related were picked for release to limit potential negative effects of inbreeding.

After undergoing health examinations and field laboratory testing by veterinary technicians, all 21 terrapins were fitted with transmitters to allow researchers to monitor their survival and seasonal movements, and to understand their habitat use within the wider river system. Following a traditional ceremony in a nearby village to bestow blessings on the terrapins for their survival and reproduction, the southern river terrapins were then placed in a soft release enclosure (a large oxbow lake fenced off from the river) to allow them to adjust to their new environment. They will be released into the wider river system later this month.

The project will be expanded in the coming year. It is expected that the wild population will continue to be supplemented on a larger scale by future efforts coordinated by WCS and partners and operated from a new sustainably-designed facility in Koh Kong Province that will encourage natural breeding and support headstarting of this and other threatened species such as the Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis - another species supported through SOS grants in Cambodia ).

"We hope that this project can serve as a model for other turtle conservation recovery efforts where populations are so low that their continued survival depends on hands-on management of all life stages," said Andrew Walde, Executive Director of the Turtle Survival Alliance.

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