by Steve and Kalyar Platt
Four adult (two males and two females) Asian Brown Tortoises (Manouria emys) arrived at the Yangon airport on Thursday, June 28, ultimately destined for an assurance colony at the Rakhine Yoma Elephant Sanctuary in Gwa, Myanmar. The tortoises were found in a village by the TSA/WCS Turtle Team during a recent survey for Southern River Terrapins (Batagur affinis) in Tanintharyi Division of southernmost Myanmar. The owner reportedly obtained the tortoises from a local hunter after they were captured in mammal snares set in the nearby forest. One female suffered a broken rear leg as a result of the snare, the bones were exposed, and the wound had become infested with flesh-eating maggots. Otherwise the tortoises appeared in good health despite the deplorable state of their living quarters in a ramshackle chicken coop. The well-intentioned owner agreed to donate his captives to TSA with the promise the animals would receive better care. We immediately applied to the Forest Department for permission to transport the tortoises to a temporary holding facility at the Yangon Zoo. Unfortunately, we had to leave Tanintharyi before the required paperwork had been processed.
Before departing Tanintharyi we made arrangements for traveling crates to be constructed, and Myanmar Airways agreed to transport the living cargo free-of-charge on their daily flight to Yangon. After Wednesday’s flight was cancelled because of bad weather, we received word the tortoises would arrive the following day and were on-hand to meet the incoming flight. The tortoises, dubbed the “Tanintharyi Four” arrived as scheduled and were immediately transported to a temporary quarantine facility at the Yangon Zoo where they will remain for at least 30 days. Upon completion of the quarantine period, the Tanintharyi Four will be transferred to the recently established assurance colony at Gwa. The injured female is now being cared for by zoo veterinarian U Tun Myint, and receiving large doses of antibiotics to clear up the infection in her shattered leg. At this point it remains unclear whether amputation will prove necessary. These tortoises are a valuable addition to the small assurance colony and their offspring will contribute towards our ultimate goal of recovering wild populations of Manouria emys in Myanmar.
Like many species of chelonians, Manouria emys is faring poorly in Myanmar. Not only does their large body size make these tortoises attractive targets for subsistence hunters, but large-scale government-sponsored land clearance for oil palm plantations threatens to destroy much of their remaining habitat. During our recent expedition we saw first-hand the extent of this habitat destruction and found shells of recently eaten Manouria emys at several villages. In fact, most distribution records for this species in Myanmar are based on the remains of tortoises found in villages and hunting camps rather than observations of wild individuals. According to village interviews conducted during our trip, Manouria emys can still be found where primary forest remains intact. Unlike some smaller species of turtles (e.g., Indotestudo elongata, Cyclemys oldhamii), Brown Tortoises rarely occur in secondary forests, oil palm or rubber plantations unless they have wandered in from nearby undisturbed forest. No matter where found, those that fall into the hands of villagers are invariably slaughtered and eaten. On an encouraging note, we found the illegal wildlife trade has yet to penetrate southern Myanmar. Because road networks linking Tanintharyi to the rest of Myanmar are non-existent and cargo must be moved by air or boat, we assume that transportation costs are simply too high to make exporting wildlife to southern China profitable.
In contrast to most places we visited, the residents of Chaung Lamu Village refrain from killing Brown Tortoises. When queried as to why they would pass up such a potentially large meal, villagers explained that the large size of many Brown Tortoises suggests great age, and killing an animal that has managed to live for so many years is sure to anger the local spirits and bring misfortune to the village. Whether these beliefs can be harnessed for conservation remains to be seen. However, similar beliefs are the cornerstone of our reintroduction plan for Burmese Star Tortoises (Geochelone platynota) and might likewise prove beneficial to Brown Tortoises.
Several large protected areas in southern Tanintharyi provide further opportunities for conservation of Brown Tortoises. Although yet to be surveyed, it is likely these areas harbor resident populations of Manouria emys that would benefit from conservation measures. In the future we hope to collaborate with the Forest Department to survey these areas, develop effective conservation plans for Manouria emys and other turtles, and identify sites where captive-bred tortoises can be returned to the wild to “jump start” the recovery of wild populations.