Preparing for Tortoise Reintroduction in Myanmar

by Heather Lowe 

IMG_0750The Turtle Survival Alliance has been part of a highly successful collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Myanmar to conserve critically endangered and endemic turtles and tortoises since 2009. Our work began as an effort to build turtle facilities to breed and house rare and endangered turtles rescued from government confiscations.  After a marked decline in the 1990s and complete extirpation in the 2000s, the TSA (with WCS) began a highly successful breeding program for the Burmese Star Tortoise (Geochelone platynota). There are now more than 4,000 Star Tortoises at several facilities throughout Myanmar and we have begun an effort to reintroduce 150 of these animals back to their native habitat.IMG_4738

In October 2013, TSA Board member Andrew Walde and wife Angela participated as part of a multifaceted team working in Myanmar on the reintroduction project. The team members were quite diverse; made up of more than a dozen scientists from many different fields and agencies. The primary focus of the trip was to conduct health surveys on a group of captive bred Burmese Star Tortoises that are set to be the first animals in the upcoming reintroduction spearheaded by the TSA and WCS. During the three week trip, blood, feces, as well choanal (mouth) and cloacal (vent) swabs were collected from animals at several sites that were four to five years of age.IMG_0771

A mobile molecular lab was used to test for the presence of multiple diseases and blood hematology analysis was also performed in the field.  Additional tests will be run in United States once permits have been acquired to send samples out of Myanmar. In addition to the 

health screening, blood samples have been banked for genetic testing to be completed when additional funding is available. Paternity testing will be a necessary component of this and future reintroduction projects. It will ensure a genetically diverse population which will bolster success at the relocation sites.

Three groups of tortoises will inhabit one hectare pens for six, twelve, and eighteen months respectively. The team hopes that these soft release protocols will encourage the tortoises to establish home ranges close to their release point. This will allow for closer monitoring and also afford the tortoises more protection, as the team has worked with the local community to foster a sense of stewardship for the reintroduced tortoises. A cadre of community conservation volunteers has been recruited in each village surrounding the release site. These volunteers are paid to provide information on illegal activities, such as tortoise poaching to sanctuary staff.

During the trip, 45 animals were equipped with VHF transmitters and miniature temperature dataloggers. They will be tracked post-release by wildlife sanctuary staff and volunteers, more than twelve of whom were trained by Andrew and Angela Walde during an intensive telemetry workshop. For most, this was their first experience with radio tracking and a necessary component to monitoring tortoise movements after reintroduction.

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All animals to be used in the soft release program received a unique code of shell notching as well as a numerical tattoo and religious symbol etched on their carapace (below). The “Sadapawa” symbol a part of Nat (spirit) worship in Myanmar not only lowers the tortoises’ value on the black market, more importantly it infers that harming of these tortoises will invoke the wrath of the local Nat spirit, the White Horse Rider and that harm will come to those who touch it.

IMG_0774This powerful symbolism will hopefully help prevent poaching of the tortoises for the international black market pet trade. Prior to release they will be also symbolically donated to a local monastery and blessed by the Monks. It is presumed that the protection offered by the Monks, the Nat spirit symbol and the disfiguration of the shells from the tattoos will discourage poachers from collecting the tortoises once they are released.

The TSA is excited about this conservation project, which will return an extirpated species to its native range – a true conservation milestone! We would like to thank the supporters that have made this project possible: Woodland Park Zoo, Toronto Zoo, Desert Tortoise Council, Kristin Berry, Taipei Forestry Bureau, and the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund.

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