By Jordan Gray and Joko Guntoro
Each December, following the annual commencement of monsoon season in northern Sumatra, Joko Guntoro leads teams from the Satucita Foundation and Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BBKSDA) as they comb provincial beaches of Aceh and North Sumatra in search of telltale footprints. The tracks are those of female Painted Terrapins (Batagur borneoensis) coming ashore on cloudless nights to deposit their eggs in the sand. Just a few decades ago these turtle crawls were a common sight but today they are exceptionally rare.
Still, in their thirteenth year, Joko and the teams spend countless hours in hopes of finding nests.
Now, in February, the monsoon season is soon coming to a close, as is the nesting season for the Painted Terrapin. Patrols that began on the beaches of Langkat Regency in early December 2021 located just four nests. Joko and his team successfully excavated all four nest and reburied the eggs at the hatchery in Jaring Halus, a village adjacent to the Karang Gading Langkat Timur Laut Wildlife Reserve. In about a month, the first of the 55 eggs should begin to hatch. Then, they will join previous years of offspring in the dense forests of the Wildlife Reserve, where an exciting new development is underway.
The Karang Gading Langkat Timur Laut Wildlife Reserve is home to a growing population of Painted Terrapins. In the past year the BBKSDA North Sumatra, with help from Satucita Foundation and other partners, renovated a deep concrete pool in a repurposed bird aviary to give the Regency's fledgling terrapin conservation program a head start for headstarting-and, potentially conservation breeding. Fifty-three terrapins that hatched in 2019 and 2021, respectively, are growing rapidly in their new habitat. The saucer-sized juvenile turtles have long lost the greenish coloration of a hatchling and now feature shades of brown and red. At this stage they are beginning to look like young versions of the adults they will become; they will soon be ready for release.
In November 2021, the small population of wild Painted Terrapins inhabiting North Sumatra became even smaller when two adult females were captured by fishermen and taken to a market in Medan, the province's capital and largest city. There they would have been sold as pets or possibly food. Thankfully, BBKSDA officers seized the two Critically Endangered turtles and relocated them to the safety of the Wildlife Reserve for quarantine. In January they would be joined by another adult terrapin, this time a male.
In the village of Tapak Kuda, the very launch point for the Painted Terrapin nest patrols of Langkat Regency, an informant notified the provincial BBKSDA office that a fisherman had incidentally captured a terrapin in his nets the week prior and was keeping it, likely to be later sold or kept as a pet. As this was during the nest patrol time period, a Satucita/BBKSDA team was nearby. The day following the report, the patrol team met with the fisherman in Tapak Kuda at which time he handed the male over to the authorities. Like the two females of the November seizure, the male was transported to the Wildlife Reserve for care and quarantine. This incident is the fourth time in as many years that an adult Painted Terrapin has been relinquished to authorities of the BBKSDA and Satucita Foundation. This indicates that the awareness among locals is increasing, but may also signal that illegal terrapin holdings of fishery's bycatch is higher than previously estimated.
With adult turtles under care, a renovated facility in a protected area underway, and a wild terrapin population that is highly depleted, the time may be right to explore the potential for a conservation breeding program in Langkat, with the three seized adults serving as the initial core breeding group. Turtle Survival Alliance and our partners have successfully established conservation breeding and assurance colonies for four of the six other Critically Endangered turtles of the genus Batagur. For the continued existence of the Painted Terrapin in North Sumatra, this may prove a necessary recourse, as sustained recruitment of new generations of terrapins is the only hope a wild population has for survival.