by Joko Guntoro and Howard Goldstein 

The Painted Terrapin (Batagur borneoensis ) was once widespread throughout southern Thailand, peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo, and Sumatra, Indonesia, but it’s populations have plummeted due to unrestricted hunting, egg collection, and habitat destruction. On 30 December 2016, nearly 600 hatchlings of this critically endangered species were released into native habitat in the District of Aceh Tamiang, Sumatra, Indonesia. 

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In total, 595 hatchlings were released on their natal beach of Ujung Tamiang. These hatchlings were head-started from nest patrols conducted between December 2015 and April 2016. This tactic is often critical in protecting turtle nests from human and wildlife predation, and results in far more surviving hatchlings reaching the water. It is hoped that such approaches can significantly boost the wild Painted Terrapin population over time. Although other such releases have in the past been held amid considerable fanfare and local participation, this event was kept small, and attended by staff of BKSDA (Agency of Conservation on Natural Resources / office or branch of Ministry of Forestry and Environmental Affair in Province of Aceh ) the Chief of the village, and some fishermen as witnesses. In addition to the hatchlings, one adult female that had been confiscated in April 2016 was also released.

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The December release is a continuation of similar efforts conducted earlier in 2016. Previously, twenty hatchlings were released by the Satucita Foundation and BKSDA Aceh on 16 August, coinciding with the commemoration of National Nature Conservation Day in the District of Aceh Tamiang.  Later, fifty hatchlings were released on 30 November 2016 in the village of Pusong Kapal, Aceh Tamiang, attended by over two hundred villagers and other stakeholders.

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To reach the release site, the team must travel about 1.5 hours by car to Pusong Kapal village. The hatchlings are then transported to the release site by boat – a 30 minute trip – in foam boxes. Three boats and about 20 people accompanied the release team to the beach. The beach, in addition to being a release area, is also the site of an established base camp currently in use for nest patrolling activities.  Earlier that day staff from this camp successfully secured five Painted Terrapin nests.

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It is hoped that a sustained program of nest patrols, head-starting, and release, as well as educating the public and effecting local change, will ultimately recover the wild population of Painted Terrapin in Aceh Tamiang, Sumatra. The river and estuaries here are believed to be the last strongholds of this species in Indonesia, with a viable wild population continuing to nest here annually.  Therefore, a long term monitoring program to investigate the hatchlings’ post-release survival is a critical component to the long range conservation goals of this species. We must be able to determine whether the hatchlings initially survive, reach maturity, and ultimately reproduce. To achieve that aim, all hatchlings released this year were implanted with PIT tags for future identification.

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We would like to express thanks for the support from the Turtle Survival Alliance,  Houston Zoo, and the Chester Zoo in supporting nest patrol activities, as well as the head-starting and release program in 2016.  The release of 665 hatchlings is a record for this young but rapidly expanding program. In addition, we will produce a short documentary of the journey of hatchlings, started from nest patrol until they are released. Stay tuned for our next updates!

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