by Rick Hudson
It’s official!! Myanmar’s first turtle and tortoise rescue facility was dedicated on December 6, at the Zeepin Forest Reserve, Ban Bwe Tree Nursery, about 17 miles east of May Myo, in Shan State. TSA President Rick Hudson handed over the keys to the new Turtle Rescue Center (TRC) to U Myint Sein of the Forestry Department saying “It is our sincere hope that this facility will offer new hope to thousands of turtles and tortoises confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade.” The TRC is located along the Lashio Road which leads to China, and is a major trade route for illegally harvested wildlife coming out of Mandalay heading for the border. Lashio was originally selected as the site for the TRC but plans changed due to logistical concerns and moved to a forestry station outside of May Myo, locally known as Pwin Oo Lwin. Aside from being more accessible (just an hour drive from Mandalay), the climate here is moderate and more conducive to animal rescue. The TRC was designed in May 2012 by a TSA team consisting of Cris Hagen (Director of Animal Management), Bill Holmstrom (Board Member), Shailendra Singh (Director TSA India), Kalyar Platt (Director TSA Myanmar) and Rick Hudson.
The central unit of the TRC is an 800 square foot open-air building designed for treating and handling large numbers of chelonians. Tubs and sinks are built in to the counter tops, equipped with hoses and shower heads, and there is room for holding plastic tubs and tanks with turtles. The water supply is spring fed to a holding cistern, and then pumped to an elevated tank, and gravity fed to the facility. Just outside the treatment facility are 10 fenced enclosures, each 25 x 20 ft, with shade and secure retreats for terrestrial turtles and tortoises. For the time being, aquatic turtles will be managed in large plastic tubs until funds can be found for permanent pools. Confiscations will be managed by Forestry Department staff stationed at the site, some of who were trained in chelonian husbandry at the recent star tortoise workshop at Lawkanandar Wildlife Sanctuary. The TSA / Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) turtle team will provide management, oversight and logistical support. Local veterinary support will be provided by veterinarians from the zoos in Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw, both of which are trained in the care and handling of turtle confiscations. The TSA plans to conduct training workshops at the TRC on chelonian husbandry and veterinary care in the future, and our ultimate goal is that the TRC will become the central base of operations for the TSA / WCS turtle conservation team.
Once fully operational, the new TRC will likely see a lot of activity. We predict the number of turtle confiscations will increase now that the Forestry Department has a place to bring the shipments. The TRC will greatly improve the process for handling these trade seizures; in the past, animals were temporarily held in warehouses or whatever space was available, and then taken out and released en masse without regard for habitat suitability. With the TRC, animals will be allowed to stabilize and be treated for dehydration and whatever injuries they may have, and given time to recover while decisions are made for their placement or release. Some key species, Arakan Forest Turtles (Heosemys depressa) for example, will be incorporated into existing Assurance Colonies; most however will be released into semi-natural areas or protected areas. The WCS – TSA team is actively surveying potential sites where confiscated chelonians can be repatriated.
The Center also supports an Assurance Colony facility for Burmese Mountain Tortoises (Manouria e. phayrei). Located in a wooded section of the park the facility, across the stream from the TRC, is a 4800 square foot facility, divided into six units, each with a pool. Approximately 24 adult tortoises will be housed here, moved from the Yadanobon Zoo in Mandalay soon. These were part of a confiscation of 76 tortoises in 2007 that the TSA handled; facilities to house these animals are still under construction.
Elsewhere in Myanmar, new assurance colony facilities were completed for both Arakan Forest Turtles and Burmese Mountain Tortoises. Located at the headquarters of the Yoma Elephant Range Sanctuary at Gwa, the Rakhine Turtle and Tortoise Center(RTTC) more than doubles the space for H. depressa, and includes a new 9000 sqft enclosure for Manouria e. phayrei. Thirteen H. depressa are currently maintained here but that number is expected to grow as confiscations are handled at the TRC. Over thirty M. e. phayrei will call the new facility home after being moved over from Mandalay. Both species are expected to reproduce well here as the location is much closer to their natural range.
The TSA wishes to acknowledge the donors for the TRC, in particular Pat Koval / WWF Canada, Detroit Zoological Institute, Natural Encounters Conservation Fund and the Taipei Forestry Bureau. The RTTC was supported by the British Chelonia Group who, over the past five years, have invested generously in chelonian facilities in Myanmar. We also want to recognize the contractor on the TRC, U Thein Htut, whose professionalism and pride in his work is evident in this facility. Finally, we are grateful for the continuing assistance of U Thant Myint and the WCS Myanmar Program staff for their on-going support of these projects.