by Steve Platt
Efforts to reestablish a wild population of Burmese star tortoises (Geochelone platynota) at a wildlife sanctuary in central Myanmar continued apace during November 2014 when we liberated 50 headstarted tortoises from a temporary pen where they had been held for the past 12 months. Captive-bred subadult tortoises from several
assurance colonies in Myanmar are being used in our reintroduction effort. Groups of similar-sized tortoises are held in 1 ha enclosures of natural habitat within the core area of the sanctuary for periods ranging from six to 18 months before being released. Our “soft-release” strategy is designed to familiarize the tortoises with the area, making it less likely for them to disperse widely upon release. The tortoises we released in November joined 50 others liberated in May 2014. Each tortoise is equipped with a radio transmitter and their movements are monitored on a bi-weekly basis by TSA/Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)-trained sanctuary staff. The results so far have been encouraging and most tortoises have strayed less than 1 km from the release site. This is of particular concern as the sanctuary is completely surrounded by agricultural lands and the safety of any tortoise that may wander outside of the protected area cannot be guaranteed.
During November, we also moved forward with plans for an ambitious release slated to begin in early 2015. As a prelude to this operation, 300 (150 males: 150 females) captive-bred star tortoises were selected from two TSA/WCS-supported assurance colonies, screened for infectious diseases by a WCS Field Veterinary Team from the Bronx Zoo, and permanently marked by notching marginal scutes and tattooing. This novel technique had been previously used on Florida softshell turtles (Weber et al. 2001) and was adapted by Andrew Walde (TSA Board) and Paul Gibbons (Turtle Conservancy) for this project. The technique involves using a handheld tattoo machine to inscribe a unique identification number as well as Buddhist iconography on the carapace. We hope that tattooing will not only deter superstitious Burmese poachers, but also discourage potential buyers from purchasing an obviously marked animal in the event a tortoise is purloined from the sanctuary. Given the high value of this species in the illicit wildlife trade, theft is not an idle concern. Although seemingly an effective marking technique, tattooing is extremely time consuming, and 30-45 minutes of painstaking work are required to mark each tortoise. We also implant a microchip in each tortoise to provide yet another layer of protection.
Once the marking was underway, we identified a second release site within the core area of the sanctuary. This site is almost 2 km away from the original release site and located in an area of thick scrub forest with patches of open grassland, a habitat that seems ideal for star tortoises. We are now in the process of constructing three 2.0 ha pre-release holding pens; each pen is being built of split bamboo, a material that is locally available, relatively cheap, and durable. Sharpened bamboo stakes concealed in shallow camouflaged pits are scattered about the perimeter of the pen to foil would-be thieves. A basecamp to house Forest Department staff is being erected near the pens and this team will provide round-the-clock security at the facility. We hope to transfer the 300 tortoises into the pens in early January 2015 and release the first group of 100 the following June.