The Emergence: A 2021 Batagur Hatching Recap

By Jordan Gray

Of the 359 living species of turtle and tortoise, more than 70 are considered Critically Endangered. Of those, all six species of the genus Batagur, the large river terrapins and roofed turtles of South and Southeast Asia, are included. One, the Northern River Terrapin (Batagur baska), today is represented in the wild only by a small handful of remaining individuals. Another, the Burmese Roofed Turtle (Batagur trivittata), by a few more than that. The collection of adults and eggs for food, among other threats, have wiped out entire populations of Batagurs. TSA and our partner programs work assiduously to ensure that eggs once collected for food instead hatch to bring forth new generations of turtles into the wild. These efforts are the last hope for Batagur survival.

Despite hardships across South and Southeast Asia, Batagur programs continued passionately forward. On April 12th, the Lawkanandar Wildlife Sanctuary saw its first-ever hatching of a Burmese Roofed Turtle. Photo: Kalyar Platt

Every year between the months of March and June, TSA and our partners anxiously await the hatching of Batagur eggs protected or translocated in the wild or laid at captive breeding colonies from December to April. From India to Indonesia, hatchling turtles are the reward for those who devote hot days and long nights to those efforts. The reward, however, serves a greater purpose: hope for Critically Endangered species who rely on their committed actions. From year to year, and species to species, one cannot estimate the number of hatchlings that will emerge from their sandy nests, it’s always a surprise. In some years, bumper crops of hatchlings emerge, in others, just a few. This year, the tireless efforts of field teams and assurance colony keepers were rewarded with the hatching of 7,352 young Batagurs.

In Sumatra, Painted Terrapins are the first of the Batagurs to emerge from their sandy nests across the genera’s range. Photo: Joko Guntoro

Across their range, the six species of Batagur exhibit a relatively equal egg incubation duration. The excitement of hatching season begins where nesting begins:  Sumatra, Indonesia, with the Painted Terrapin. In early March, the first greenish hatchlings emerged from the sand of Satucita Foundation’s terrapin hatchery at the Painted Terrapin Information Centre in the island’s northernmost province of Aceh. Since their terrapin conservation program’s inception, Satucita Foundation, in partnership with BKSDA-Aceh and the District Government of Aceh Tamiang, has hatched and released over 3,000 young turtles into the province’s estuaries.

This year, the program hatched and released another 330 in Aceh and 48 more in Langkat, North Sumatra. While the program in Aceh is in its 11th year, the program in Langkat, a collaboration with BKSDA Section II – Langkat and the District Government of Stabat, is still in its infancy. Nesting patrols and egg collection and incubation commenced there in 2017. In North Sumatra, terrapins are seemingly more scarce than in Aceh. This rapidly developing program there may prove vital to preserving them.

Hatchling Painted Terrapins are released on an estuarine beach in Aceh Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: Doni

Directly to the East, all hopes for a successful year hatching Southern River Terrapins (Batagur affinis) in Malaysia were nearly lost when in late December severe flooding ravaged the peninsula’s eastern states. Coinciding with the onset of nesting season, the floodwaters inundated the sandy riverbanks of the Kemaman River where the rare turtle deposits their eggs. The flooding would not, however, deter the terrapins’ drive to continue their species. Three weeks after the flood waters receded female terrapins emerged from the river to lay their eggs.

Traditionally, eggs laid by the Southern River Terrapin near Kampung Pasir Gajah, a village along the Kemaman, would be collected for food. Now they are collected for conservation. By the end of the nesting season, hundreds of eggs were incubating beneath the sand of Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia’s (TCS) hatchery at their River Terrapin Conservation Centre. The hatch success of these eggs though was eerily foreshadowed by the flooding that earlier in the year had consumed the region.

One of the 244 Southern River Terrapins hatched in Malaysia this year. Photo: Pelf-Nyok Chen

By the second week of May, 40 greyish-brown hatchlings emerged from the sand, a promising start. By hatching season’s end, the Kemaman terrapin population had grown by 244 turtles. Though not a failure by any means, the hatch rate was far lower than previous years, leaving TCS co-founder Pelf-Nyok Chen to hypothesize why. The only dissimilar variable this year was the flooding that preceded egg laying. Still, 244 Critically Endangered young turtles are being headstarted at the Centre and will be released into the river in several months. They are the future for the Southern River Terrapin in Peninsular Malaysia*.

Northward, across the Gulf of Thailand, anticipations ran high at the Koh Kong Reptile Conservation Centre (KKRCC) in Cambodia as 71 Southern River Terrapin eggs incubated within an artificial sandbank there. Over the years, many wild Southern River Terrapin eggs have hatched in Cambodia through a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) / Royal Government of Cambodia Fisheries Administration / TSA nest protection program on the Sre Ambel River. These 71 eggs, however, represented the historic first-ever laying of eggs in captivity in the country—and, from five separate females. The hatching of just a quarter of these eggs would equal the record annual total of wild eggs hatched under the nest protection program—23 in 2020. All was not to be, however.

Hatched in May, “Steve” the turtle is growing rapidly at the Koh Kong Reptile Conservation Centre in Cambodia. Photo: Tim Vuthy

In early May, after nearly three months of eager anticipation, a single hatchling terrapin crawled its way out of the artificial sandbank. This would be the only of the 71 eggs to hatch. The small olive, cream rimmed hatchling was affectionately named “Steve” by the KKRCC staff in honor of Steve Platt, WCS Herpetologist for Southeast Asia and China. Steve the turtle is now being headstarted at the KKRCC along with hundreds of other Southern River Terrapins managed there.

According to Platt, the other 70 terrapin eggs expired during various stages of development. Coincidingly, at the Angkor Center for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB) to the north, the single and also first-time nest of a female Southern River Terrapin there failed to hatch despite all eggs initially showing signs of life.* As with Chen in Malaysia, staff and associates of the KKRCC and ACCB are making their hypotheses as to why egg failure occurred. Although only one terrapin hatched this year in Cambodia, undesirable outcomes serve as learning experiences, often resulting in future successes. With this being the first year for headstarted terrapins to nest at the KKRCC and ACCB, and armed with new knowledge, the future looks bright for these programs.

Project Batagur Baska saw a successful hatching season in 2021. A total of 91 Northern River Terrapins emerged from two breeding colonies in Bangladesh. Photo: Abdur Rob

Nearly 2,000 kilometers to the northwest, in the vast wetlands of the Sundarbans of Bangladesh and India, hatching commenced in April for one of the world’s most endangered turtles, the Northern River Terrapin (Batagur baska). On the last day of the month, 40 baby terrapins from two nests entered the world at the Karamjal Forest Station in Bangladesh. In the weeks to follow, another 39 hatchlings emerged from two other nests. Of these four nests, two were from females who had never before nested. This is big news as new parentage among the 79 hatchlings significantly increases genetic variation in the captive population.

Karamjal was not the only place in Bangladesh Northern River Terrapins were hatching. In Bhawal National Park, where the country’s other terrapin assurance colony resides, 12 young terrapins dug their way out from the sandy confines of their nest. These 12 were lucky, as the other nest deposited in the colony’s sandbank was marauded by ants who consumed its 21 eggs. Despite this loss, for the Bangladeshi Northern River Terrapin conservation program, conceptualized and operated by TSA partner Zoo Vienna Schönbrunn, in collaboration with the Bangladesh Forest Department, Turtle Island, and Prokriti O Jibon Foundation, the 2021 hatching season was an overall success. Between the two colonies, a total of 91 new terrapins were added to the program’s burgeoning population, essentially assuring the turtle’s existence in Bangladesh.

The TSA India / West Bengal Forest Department’s Northern River Terrapin program hatched 31 turtles in 2021, nearly triple that of the previous year. Photo: Shailendra Singh

Across the border in the Indian Sundarbans, the breeding program for the Northern River Terrapin, India’s most imperiled turtle, saw a marked increase in hatch success from 2020. Last year, just prior to their hatching, eggs incubating beneath the sand at Sajnekhali Tiger Reserve (STR) were abruptly inundated by storm surge waters from the super cyclone Amphan. Only 12 survived. This year, the Reserve’s joint TSA/WCS India Program / West Bengal Forest Department’s breeding program was again assailed by a cyclone at the end of May, but not before 31 hatchling terrapins made their way out of the sand in the nick of time. The 31 hatchlings join the other 350 juveniles being headstarted in West Bengal.

Dozens of the 5,654 Three-striped Roofed Turtles hatched in India this year scurry to the water. Photo: Pawan Pareek

For the other two Indian Batagurs, the Red-crowned (Batagur kachuga) and Three-striped (Batagur dhongoka) roofed turtles, the 2021 hatching season was yet another resounding success. Through the month of May, the TSA/WCS India Program’s hatchery on the banks of the Chambal River saw a flurry of activity. Quiet bamboo-fenced nests that for two months had been under round-the-clock surveillance became alive as thousands of hatchling roofed turtles emerged within them. Upon the hatchlings’ emergence the Chambal turtle team quickly recorded the turtles’ data and released them at the river’s edge. Through the team’s dedicated efforts, another 5,654 Three-Striped and 712 Red-crowned roofed turtles now live amongst their kind in the National Chambal Sanctuary, the roofed turtles’ last remaining stronghold.

Finally, a record-breaking year for Burmese Roofed Turtle (Batagur trivittata) hatching success offered light beneath the shadow cast by an out-of-control COVID-19 situation and ongoing suppression of and violence against Myanmar’s citizens by the country’s military. In the middle of nesting season, on the morning of February 1, the military seized power and deposed the democratically elected members of the Myanmar’s ruling party. In the months since, the staff of the TSA/WCS/Forest Department turtle programs have continued to focus on their conservation objective in spite of their hardships. This despite leader Kalyar Platt being sequestered to her home along with family members, and husband Steve Platt still relegated to Cambodia.

The Burmese Roofed Turtle program in Myanmar witnessed a record-breaking year, hatching 238 turtles. Photo: Kalyar Platt

For Myanmar’s last wild population of Burmese Roofed Turtles inhabiting the upper Chindwin River, the nesting season was a disappointment, with only a single clutch of eggs deposited—none of them proving viable. However, a hatching season of bounty was observed at three breeding colonies for the species. On April 12th, a hatchling Burmese Roofed Turtle was discovered at the assurance colony at Lawkanandar Wildlife Sanctuary. Eighteen more hatchlings would follow there. This is the first occurrence of roofed turtle reproduction at the Sanctuary, which was founded in 2010. At the Yangon Zoo, a single hatchling emerged. At the Yadanabon Zoo, hatchlings came in droves, 218 of them in all. Through a year of trials and tribulations, the 238 hatchling Burmese Roofed Turtles, a record number, serves as testament to the determination of those in Myanmar we call friends and colleagues.

The TSA and our partners across South and Southeast Asia are committed to the persistence of wild Batagur turtles. With all species considered Critically Endangered, our steadfast resolve must continue unabated. Although challenges lie ahead, the survival of this group of charismatic turtles is in our hands. Together, we can ensure that Batagur turtles survive in the wild for years to come.

From India to Indonesia, nest protection and captive breeding programs hatched 7,352 Batagurs. Graphic: Jordan Gray

*Denotes topic featured in an Oral Presentation at this year’s 19th Annual, and 2nd Virtual, Symposium on the Conservation of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. REGISTER TODAY!

3 Comments

  1. Patricd on August 5, 2021 at 10:16 pm

    Thank you from across the world for all the work and successes for our terrapin friends.

  2. Kate on August 6, 2021 at 11:48 am

    Outstanding write up of the work being done in South and Southeast Asia by dedicated conservationists. I need to grab an atlas to follow along.

  3. KC Gray Siebert on August 7, 2021 at 8:16 am

    Super article, Jordan. Continued success for TSA and all the turtle enthusiasts working tirelessly to keep these fun animals around.

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