by Rick Hudson
The joint Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) / Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) field team recently returned from the Upper Chindwin River in Myanmar where one of the world’s most critically endangered turtles is making a remarkable recovery. Feared extinct until “rediscovered” in 2002, when three specimens were found in a pagoda pond, the Burmese roof turtle had not been seen by scientists since the 1930s. Surveys subsequently located a remnant population on the Upper Chindwin River – a major tributary of the Ayeyarwady – that has provided the foundation for this species’ recovery. A combination of nest protection, headstarting hatchlings for future release, and captive propagation have pulled this species back from the brink, and over 700 turtles are now thriving in three assurance colonies.
Led by the husband-and-wife team of Steven and Kalyar Platt, the expedition traveled by boat to their forward operating base in Limpha Village. Owing to the overwhelming success of this project and the burgeoning number of turtles in captivity, there is an urgent need to both expand the network assurance colonies and identify habitats where headstarted turtles can soon be released. Expanding the existing facilities in Limpha Village proved straight-forward: ten 250-gallon fiberglass tanks were installed to accommodate the rapidly growing turtles and house the hatchlings expected later this season. Furthermore, a vacant lot was donated by the village council where grow-out ponds for larger turtles will soon be constructed. Finally, a site was identified near the headquarters of Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary where a third captive breeding colony can be established. Plans call for a 1-acre fenced breeding pond to be constructed on the site during the coming months. A core group of breeding animals will be selected from rapidly maturing turtles currently being headstarted.
Identifying potential release sites was more problematic owing to fishing pressure, widespread use of sandbanks for seasonal agriculture, and gold mining. Nonetheless the search was successful: suitable release sites were identified in the Chindwin near Limpha and Nam Thalet Chaung, a tributary of the Chindwin where roof turtles historically occurred. As the Platts stated in an email, “this is a beautiful stretch of river with sandbanks for nesting, adjacent deep pools, and abundant fruiting trees for food. Importantly gold has never been found in this river, which has escaped the despoliation that typifies parts of the Chindwin.”
While at Limpha the team assisted in collecting roof turtle eggs, which are transferred to a secure beach at the basecamp for incubation. The 2013-14 nesting season yielded a bumper crop of eggs: 150 from eight clutches were collected from four sandbanks. This represents an increase of one clutch over previous years and it seems likely that a additional young female has entered the breeding pool. Although outlook for the roof turtle appears promising, complacency is out of place. With fewer than ten mature females surviving in the wild, the future remains of this species remains precarious. However, without conservation action, the roofed turtle would no doubt have joined ranks of the “disappeared” and faded into biological oblivion.