By Andrew Walde
On November 1, 2017, I left for a multi-week trip to Cambodia with Brian Horne, Coordinator of Freshwater Turtle and Tortoise Conservation, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The purpose of this trip was for two critically important agenda items for large riverine turtles: 1) The release of 25 critically endangered captive-reared adult Southern River Terrapins or Royal Turtles (Batagur affinis), and 2) Partake in a strategic technical workshop for large riverine turtles including Batagur.
The Royal Turtle, Cambodia’s National Reptile, has been the focal species for the WCS’s Cambodian chelonian program since 2001 when a small population was “rediscovered” in the Sre Ambel River. Initially started as a collaborative project with WCS and The Royal Government of Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration (FiA), the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) helped build the initial grow-out facility for the species. Since this initial phase, the TSA has focused on other projects in the region. In 2016 the TSA was invited back into the fold to run the turtle program in Cambodia as a joint project. Up until last year, the Cambodian program had a single-species-focus on the Southern River Terrapin, but in 2016 the WCS/TSA team took over a project for the endangered Asian Giant Softshell Turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) on the Mekong River from Conservation International (CI). These two species will take a significant multi-pronged conservation approach through community outreach, nest protection, habitat protection, and vigilant law enforcement efforts to maintain and increase their Cambodian populations.
Stepping off the plane in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, we met up with the WCS Bronx Zoo Zoological Health Program team (WCS Health Team) of Paul Calle, Angela Perry, and Kate McClave. The five of us headed straight out for Koh Kong, the capital city of Cambodia’s Koh Kong Province (A six-hour drive after 23h of flights!). Once there, we could get set up to conduct health surveys of the Royal Turtles in the colony and select animals for the upcoming release. Because the reintroduction of these 25 animals would only be the second of its type for the program and part of a complex strategy to bolster the wild population (believed extinct until the year 2000) in Cambodia, releasing the most fit individuals is of the utmost importance for the efficacy of the initiative.
The next day, we set to work on capturing Royal Turtles from the big earthen pond at the Koh Kong facility—where the water visibility is just about zero. After we caught a couple, we set up a makeshift lab and started processing the turtles. We then sent the health team back to the hotel to work out the kinks on processing the samples. While the WCS Health Team worked on turtle health protocols and processes, Brian, Jay Allen, and I went to work on making improvements to the new ponds that the turtles were going to be transferred to. For the next five days we cycled through turtle captures, turtle processing, health assessments, attaching acoustic transmitters, and then transferring over to pond construction. In the end, the WCS Health Team selected, processed, and tagged 13 female and 12 male turtles aged approximately 8 years for release. It was fun, but long, hot, and tiring work!
On the afternoon of November 9th, Phase II of the Koh Kong trip began. Our chelonian colleagues from around the world descended on Koh Kong to participate in a technical workshop and retreat to discuss large riverine turtle conservation efforts, issues, and future directions. The mood was immediately lively as everyone presented their work, and had comments, suggestions, and ideas to share to help the other projects. The experience and knowledge sharing on large riverine turtles from the 12 countries represented was an experience I don’t think any of us will forget.
The day following the technical workshop, the 25 Royal Turtles designated for release were introduced into the Sre Ambel River to much fanfare. The release was attended by more than 30 project participants representing the TSA, WCS, FiA, and Wildife Reserves Singapore (WRS), government officials, and news reporters. Publicity for the event was extensive, with television, newspaper, and magazine outlets all covering the release. There was a huge swirl of emotions watching those Batagur return to their native river and we were rewarded with several turtles “breaching” like whales (which none of us had ever seen before). This was the second such release of adult Royal Turtles into the Sre Ambel, following a release of 21 individuals in 2015. Like this cohort, the original 21 turtles were fitted with acoustic transmitters to monitor their movements and survivorship in the river.
The initial release of individuals in 2015 has thus far proven successful. After two years of monitoring, this original group has shown an 85 percent survival rate. To continue this success, the teams in Cambodia must stay vigilant with community relations to help ensure the animals are not caught for consumption. In addition to the threat of capture of this animal for food, habitat alteration and degradation has been a large factor for this turtle’s disappearance in Cambodia. Prior to July of this year, sand-dredging was a major impact on the destruction of Royal Turtle habitat and nesting beaches. In July, the Cambodian government halted large-scale sand-dredging and sand-mining operations in the rivers of the Koh Kong Province. This move is exprected to increase the survivability and reproductive potential of the two cohorts of Royal Turtles released there. Furthermore, the WCS and Rainforest Trust have entered into a mutual conservation partnership with the goal of creating a sanctuary along the Sre Ambel river – an initiative that will be vital to long-term conservation efforts for the turtles.
The day following the release of Royal Turtles, we attended the official opening of the Koh Kong Reptile Conservation Centre (KKRCC). With work on the facility beginning in 2016 as an initiative of the WCS and FiA, the 24 acre (9.7 ha) center currently houses around 160 Royal Turtles in its eight ponds. Like the previous day’s event, the opening ceremony of the center was well attended by WCS, FiA, and TSA staff, private and public sponsors, government officials including the Province’s Deputy Governor, Buddhist monks, and news media outlets. As part of the ceremonies, our TSA Chairman of the Board Patricia Koval gave an impassioned speech for the opening of the center, of which her and husband Alan Koval’s foundation are supporters.
At the end of the opening ceremonies for the KKRCC, a local couple donated an adult pair of Royal Turtles to the center. The pair of turtles were long-term captives, owned by Koh Kong Provincial Fisheries Administration Official Nay Ol, who rescued them from villagers whom had planned on cooking and eating the turtles. The female was purchased from villagers in 2000 and the male several years after that. Due to their Critically Endangered status, the WCS had been trying for over 10 years to incorporate these individuals into the assurance colony—and their persistence paid off. With the wild Cambodian population of Royal Turtles estimated at just a handful of adults, the adult pair will play a significant role in improving genetic diversity for the captive-breeding initiative at the KKRCC.
After all the celebrations, it was right back to business with another set of meetings to discuss with WCS leaders and donors how to build a more effective turtle conservation program with our partners. The various country programs presented on some of their successes and issues, and we discussed how to move turtle conservation from reactive to proactive to increase the impact of the overall program. The following day was kicked off by a talk on wildlife trafficking and defining the turtle trade issue, followed by a discussion on leveraging partnerships, of where I gave a talk on the TSA’s model and the various types of partnerships that we have. The final day of the retreat was spent discussing restoring functional turtle populations, how to measure and communicate our results, and how to incorporate the past two weeks of discussion into the core elements of a five-year strategy.
After the meeting, a group of us headed north to Siem Reap to visit our friends and collaborators at the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB). There we saw the impressive efforts being made at on behalf of chelonians, and discussed ways forward for future projects and collaborations.
This trip was what conservation is all about. A group of committed individuals, sharing ideas, and pitching in to make things happen. Releasing critically endangered animals that we have known for over 10 years into the wild is one of those experiences that you just can’t describe. It is such a mixed emotion of hope for their future, fear for their survival, and the excitement of re-wilding an animal that is effectively extinct in the wild. All of this, made that much better by getting to share it with the Global Turtle Team.