By Jordan Gray and Kalyar Platt

The TSA, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and Myanmar Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation’s collaborative reintroduction of the critically endangered Burmese Star Tortoise (Geochelone platynota) into the wilds of Myanmar is developing into one of the great conservation success stories of our time.

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Burmese Star Tortoises patrol their acclimation pen.

Considered functionally extinct (population no longer reproductively viable) in the wild by the early 2000s, captive assurance colonies for the species were established in separate locations in Myanmar from a founder group of roughly 175 individuals. Although a small number of these assurance animals were collected from the wild in a last-ditch effort to effectively preserve the animals’ genetic footprint, the majority were retrieved from confiscations of illegal trafficking. In the mid-2000s, the TSA played a pivotal role in the renovation and expansion of, and fundraising for, the assurance colonies located at the Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary (MWS), Lawkananda Wildlife Sanctuary, and Yadanabon Zoo. On account of this expansion and improved husbandry practices, the original founder population has flourished in captivity, and quantities of tortoises in the assurance colonies now number in the thousands.

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Mating Burmese Star Tortoises.

In executing a true conservation agenda for the ex situ assurance breeding colonies, cohorts of star tortoises were first released, utilizing a method of “soft release” into the MWS in 2014. (Prior to their designation as functionally extinct in the wild, the MWS served as one of the last-stands for the star tortoise’s wild survival before its population was pilfered by poachers.) In a “soft release,” large pens are built in a location designated appropriate for the tortoises’ survival. After a year of acclimation to the location, segments of the enclosure walls are removed to allow the tortoises to freely move out of their confines into the surrounding habitat. Based off the success of these reintroductions at MWS, quantified by a low mortality rate and confirmed reproduction, a cohort of 150 tortoises was selected for reintroduction into another former last-stand for the species, the Shwe Settaw Wildlife Sanctuary (SSWS).

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Community Rangers Hlaing Myo Tun (Left) and Win Thu (Right) track tortoises at SSWS.

The SSWS is a 553 square kilometer preserve in Myanmar’s central dry zone, originally established for the protection of the critically endangered Eld’s Deer (Panolia eldii thamin). Despite this tract of land being an established sanctuary, the previously robust population of star tortoises – one of the last in the country – was also wiped out by poachers in the mid to late 1990s. Like the “soft release” at Minzontaung, in situ pens were constructed in a remote area of the preserve. On 18 July 2016 the group of captive-bred tortoises, 75 males and 75 females, were officially donated to a Buddhist monastery, and transferred to the acclimation pen within the sanctuary. Each tortoise was tattooed with a unique identification number and Buddhist icons to provide immediate recognition and in an attempt to ward away would-be poachers. It is believed that the transferring of the tortoises to the monastery and the tattooing of the icons offer a greater protection to each animal through religious taboos.

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Released tortoise rests beside radio-tracking equipment.

After one year in the acclimation pens where the tortoises learned to forage on native vegetation and establish site fidelity (faithfulness to a home range), segments of the bamboo perimeter were removed to allow the tortoises to freely “liberate” themselves from the confines. Forty-two of the 150 tortoises were affixed with VHF (very high frequency) transmitters with a two-year battery lifetime, so that the team, led by Project Manager Swann Htet Naing Aung, can follow the tortoises’ movements through radio-tracking. The tracking effort provides both qualitative and quantitative data on the tortoise’s adaption to the new surroundings including a summary of distance traveled, monthly activity, and survivorship.

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Project Manager Swann Htet and Community Ranger Win Thu take data on telemetered tortoise.

To effectively track the tortoises through the large expanse of forest and wooded savannas, a team of 16 “tortoise-trackers” was assembled including 11 locally-recruited Community Conservation Volunteers and 5 staff members of the Myanmar Forest Department. This team is committed to tracking the 42 tortoises three-times monthly for the twenty-four-month duration of the transmitter’s battery’s lifetime. The team, with the aid of TSA/WCS staff, Forest Department rangers, and locally recruited Community Conservation Volunteers, also participates in SMART law enforcement patrols to deter poachers, would-be thieves, and footpads who would purloin tortoises for sale to illegal wildlife traffickers. For additional security measures for the tortoises and the conservationists, the release area is under guard, 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. In an effort to promote long-term stewardship of the tortoises and their habitat, the team also allocates considerable time to visiting between three and five villages adjacent to the sanctuary each month to conduct educational outreach programs.

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A SMART patrol meets at the sanctuary.

Since the radio tracking effort began in July of this year, zero of the 42 transmitted tortoises have perished, although a few of them have had unpleasant run-ins with Golden Jackals (Canis aureus), leaving only minor wounds. These wounds were treated by the team members, and tortoises released. The greatest metric of success for the reintroduction of this species to the SSWS was observed on 10 August 2017 when the first generation of wild-produced hatchling star tortoises was found by the tracking team! Based off the success of the reintroduction and survivorship of the tortoises at the SSWS, a rapidly-maturing cohort of 600 tortoises is scheduled to be “soft-released” into the protective borders of the sanctuary in January 2018. The success of these reintroductions for a species once teetering on the brink of biological extinction is testament to the unfaltering dedication of the Burmese Star Tortoise Conservation Team.

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A hatchling of the first wild generation of tortoises found at SSWS.