SIHANOUKVILLE (Khmer Times) – Thought to have been extinct until 2000 due to their unfortunate historical status on Khmer menus, the southern river terrapin – commonly called the “Royal Turtle” in Cambodia – is making a comeback on the Kingdom’s coast.
The terrapin, one of the world’s most critically endangered reptiles, was re-discovered by a group of researchers and conservationists from the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Cambodian Fisheries Administration (CFA) in 2001.
Research around the Sre Ambel River in Koh Kong province showed that the terrapins had been pushed to the brink of extinction, largely due to harvesting of their eggs and flesh for food.
Conservation efforts to save the creature were aided by a well-timed Royal intervention, with King Norodom Sihamoni personally ordering their protection via a Royal Decree in 2005.
This resulted in the strange-looking fresh-water animal becoming known as “the Royal Turtle” –Cambodia’s official national reptile and one of the Kingdom’s seven national symbols.
Efforts to bring it back from the brink subsequently intensified.
In mid-July years of research and conservation efforts allowed for the successful release of 24 captive-raised southern river terrapins into a protected “soft-enclosure” where their progress could be monitored.
This month, the turtles left their enclosed area to be released into their intended home, the rivers and shores of Koh Kong where, it is hoped – with the ongoing monitoring and protection of locals and conservationists – they will begin to flourish.
Since 2000, a WCS breeding program has successfully been re-introducing the rare reptiles back into Koh Kong’s habitats, but recent weeks have marked the start of what the NGO is calling “an ambitious international collaboration to save the species from extinction.”
Poachers Become Protectors
In a stunning example of tackling a problem and moulding it into part of the solution, authorities first began making progress when they started paying locals, who were previously looting and selling eggs, to protect the nests instead.
WCS, in partnership with the CFA, initiated a community-based protection system around Sre Ambel, hiring former nest looters to search for and protect the nests, instead of harvesting the eggs.
Since then, 39 nests with a total of 564 eggs have been protected, resulting in 382 hatchlings, who would have otherwise probably been eaten.
Hatched in protected enclosures, the baby turtles are then transferred to a facility and raised for several years in captivity, enabling them to reach a size where they would be less vulnerable to predators upon release.
A Hopeful Future
“We are very hopeful for the future of Cambodia’s Royal Turtle,” said Heng Sovannara, deputy director of the conservation department at CFA.
“We find very few nests each year due to the rarity of the species, but we have been very successful with protecting wild nests and raising the hatchlings.”
Returning the now adult turtles back to the wild, however, marks a vital stage in restoring the population and bringing the endangered reptile back from the brink, Mr. Sovannara said.
WCS regional herpetologist, Steven Platt, said that it is an important year for Cambodian conservation.
“A series of releases over recent weeks have trebled the wild population of the species,” he said, adding that further similar actions will help restore the southern river terrapin to its previous, important place in the local ecosystem.
Project to Expand
Recent advances mean that the project will expand. Plans already underway to develop more conservation facilities in Koh Kong province
More endangered reptiles are also on the radar of WCS in Cambodia, such as the Siamese crocodile, which is classed as critically endangered, having lost 99 percent of its wild population.
The Siamese crocodile was also believed to have been fully extinct in the wild until – again in 2000 – National Geographic’s resident reptile specialist, Brady Barr, discovered and caught one in Cambodia.
WCS, with their partners, plan to develop new facilities in Koh Kong that will house a greater number of animals and encourage natural breeding, enabling their projects to supplement wild populations on a larger scale.
Hard work remains ahead however, and Brian D. Horne, the WCS turtle conservation specialist, is quick to remind those celebrating that turtles still remain one of the most threatened creatures globally.
“The conservation of Asia’s turtles is a top priority for WCS,” he said. “We have long partnered with the Cambodian Fisheries Administration here, but more partnerships will enable us to be more effective in our efforts to recover this iconic species to its full ecological role.”
A southern river terrapin, also known as Cambodia’s Royal Turtle, once faced inevitable extinction. Now, in Koh Kong, they are making a dramatic comeback. Photo: WCS