A royal turtle once rescued from villagers who wanted to eat it was one of two handed over to a conservation centre yesterday.
The turtles had been raised by former Koh Kong provincial Fisheries Administration’s official Nay Ol, 60, for 17 years.
Tears welled up in his eyes when he spoke about his turtles during the inauguration of the Koh Kong Reptile Conservation Centre in Mondol Seima district.
One turtle weighed more than 30 kilos and was more than 50 years old. It was rescued in 2000 from villagers who were about to kill and cook it.
Mr Ol said his wife could not be there because she would cry if she saw the turtles being given away.
He joined the turtle conservation project in 2000 and went that year to Sre Ambel to educate people about royal turtles.
“I saw villagers mixing ingredients, so I asked them what they were cooking,” he said. “They replied that they would cook turtle.
“When I looked at the turtle, it was royal turtle,” he said, “So I asked to buy it from them. I felt so much pity for it.”
The villagers sold it for $25. It weighed about 20 kilos at the time. He took it to raise at his home in Koh Kong province.
Several years later, he bought another small male turtle to raise at home as well. It is now about 10 years old and weighs 10 kilos.
“They bring good luck for my family,” Mr Ol said.
At the conservation centre, Mr Ol called his oldest turtle “A Mab” or fat guy, even though it is female. He called by this name every day before providing it with water spinach as food.
“When she heard the name, her head always came out from the shell,” he said.
His wife bought water spinach in the town. She was called water spinach grandmother.
“Now I am old, I can no longer take care of them,” he said.
He decided to hand over the turtles to the centre because it could take better care of them and breed them.
The royal turtle, or southern river terrapin, has been Cambodia’s national reptile since 2005. It is on the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The Sre Ambel River system of Koh Kong province is one of the few remaining habitats for the species, which can today only be found in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia. Its global population is estimated to range between 500 and 700.
Since 2000, 187 turtles have been released into the wild.
The new centre has 193 turtles including the two from Mr Ol. It also has 21 Siamese crocodiles. Twenty-five adult turtles were released into the wild with GPS transmitters on Monday.
The centre was founded by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Fisheries Administration in 2016 and covers 9.7 hectares of land. About $200,000 was spent on construction, equipment and buying the land.
Eight ponds have been dug and organised to replicate the habitat of turtles. The WCS plans to expand the centre and dig more ponds.
Centre turtle carer Turn Sarorn said she had spent almost 20 years looking after turtles and Siamese crocodiles.
“Those turtles and Siamese crocodiles are like my children,” Ms Sarorn said, adding that she treated them when they were sick.
The babies and hatchling turtles are kept and fed in plastic tanks before being released into the pond. Turtles in the centre eat about 45 kilos of water spinach a day, while crocodiles eat about two kilos of frog meat daily.
“I cannot go far from them for a long time because I worry about them,” Ms Sarorn said.
“If there is something abnormal with the turtles and crocodiles, I call the boss immediately.”
Som Sitha, the WCS technical adviser for the project, said a previous centre was set up in 2006 in Sre Ambel district but it was not up to a good standard. Last year, 206 turtles, including young ones, were moved from the old centre to the new one along with 13 Siamese crocodiles.
Mr Sitha said the male turtle handed over by Mr Ol would be good for breeding.
“We aim to take that turtle for breeding in our pond with other male turtles because our turtles in the centre have not reached to the age for breeding,” he said.