by Heather Lowe
Our efforts to secure a large female Northern River Terrapin (Batagur baska), believed to be the sole surviving representative of her species in Myanmar, came to a disappointing conclusion in November when the Board of Trustees at Botataung Pagoda refused to grant final permission for us to remove the aged turtle to a captive-breeding facility. The turtle, dubbed Phwar Phwar Gyi (=Big Grandmother) by the Turtle Team, has been dwelling in the filthy waters of the pagoda pond since at least 1984. She is thought to have been released by a pilgrim traveling from the lower Ayeyarwady Delta where B. baska clung to existence through the early 1990s. The symbolic release of fish, turtles, and small birds is commonplace at Buddhist temples throughout Asia; by liberating a captive animal, a person is believed to earn karmic merit.
Despite promising initial discussions, the Board of Trustees of the pagoda soon reversed their position claiming the rules did not allow property to be given to anyone regardless of the reason. Stressing that what we were requesting should be considered a “loan” rather than a “donation” did little to further our case. Even after securing government support to transfer Phwar Phwar Gyi to more suitable quarters where a captive-breeding program could be initiated, our month-long parlay with Board came to naught. With no further avenues of appeal open to us, our only recourse was to comply with their wishes and consign this irreplaceable turtle to the filthy waters of the pond where without a mate, she is “functionally dead”. To say that we were shocked by the decision of the Board would be an understatement. Barring a change of heart by the Board, our only hope of saving this species from extinction in Myanmar rests on the off-chance we can locate another B. baska in another pagoda where the Board of Trustees is more open to our plans. To this end, we will soon be launching a survey of pagoda ponds throughout southern Myanmar.