Royal Turtle Remains Critically Endangered Despites Increased Population

The Southern River Terrapin (Batagur affinis) known locally as Royal Turtle is one of the 25 most critically endangered turtles and tortoise species in the world and listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, Mr. Ouk Vibol, Director of Fisheries Conservation Department of Fisheries Administration (FiA) told AKP via telegram recently.

This species exists only in some Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, added Mr. Vibol, pointing out that there are around 500 to 700 of them in the globe, including approximately 450 in Cambodia.

The reptile was believed to be extinct in Cambodia until 2000 when a group of experts from the United States-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and FiA rediscovered them in the system of Sre Ambel river, in the western part of Koh Kong province.

In the same year, he continued, WCS initiated a project to protect this endangered species, while in 2002 the WCS Cambodia and FiA started nest protection programme as well as other projects which play a vital role in protecting the species, and involve former egg collectors in the project, thus generating extra income for them and allowing the turtle eggs to successfully hatch instead of collecting eggs for sell.

Due to this successful project, we have 436 turtles, of which 249 have been kept in Koh Kong Reptile Conservation Centre (KKRCC) and Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB), while 187 others, equipped with radio transmitters to track their whereabouts and movements in order to help protect them, have been released in the wild, underlined Mr. Vibol.

This species of turtle exists mainly along the Sre Ambel River system (mostly in Sre Ambel district, Koh Kong province) and some in Preah Sihanouk province and in Chiphat River (from Andong Teuk bridge) upstream, this is why it is considered as local species which can survive only in its own areas, therefore it is easily threatened when its habitat is destroyed, he said. Even though the nest project is a success, sand dredging, logging of riparian forests and illegal fishing etc. are still the biggest threats to the turtle's habitats, and if those threats continue, this species will face extinction in the near future.

The FiA and WCS Cambodia have been collaborating on the nest project successfully since its launch along with educating local people, doing research, protecting the turtles' habitats and eggs, breeding, releasing and tracking as well as building the KKRCC, etc.

Mr. Som Sitha, Landscape Technical Advisor of WCS Cambodia, also stressed via telegram that nine out of 14 native species are listed and protected by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of the Kingdom of Cambodia. This Royal Turtle is the most endangered one as their habitat is very restricted to only one river system in the country, while the other species are becoming very critically endangered such as Mekong Snail-eating turtle (Malayemys subtrijuga). This species is on sale almost in every market in the country. Their habitats are dependent on lowland wetlands and rice field which is now surrounded by people while wetlands are filled.

Sand mining since 2007 is the main cause of habitat decline as well as habitat destruction by local people. Illegal logging to supply local and international demands is also the main factor to the species' sharp decline, he added. The circular and declaration issued on July 10, 2017 by the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME) to stop all types of sand dredging activities in Sre Ambel River system in Koh Kong province have led to the renewal of the nesting beaches along the river.

WCS, ACCB, Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) and FiA have been working closely to protect the species and to ensure that this species will not be wiped out from the wild through the reintroduction programme.

Mr. Michael Meyerhoff, Country Director of ACCB based in Siem Reap province also expressed his concern regarding the threats for this species as well. He explained that one big issue with turtles and tortoises is, that many species need a long time to reach maturity, which makes them very vulnerable to rapid changes in their environment.

The Royal Turtle needs probably at least 12 years to reach maturity and to be able to breed, but there are some in captivity in other countries that did not breed although they are already 25 year old, he added.

I believe that still not many local people are aware about the Royal Turtle. He added. I strongly hope that with the participation of every Cambodian citizen, authorities, conservationist as well as the experts, we will be able to preserve this species and populations will be growing further.

Royal turtle was designated as Cambodia's National Reptile by a royal decree on March 21, 2005. They are different from other types of turtles and tortoises as they can live both in fresh water and the sea. It has white eyes, straight up nose-shaped, 60 cm length black or grey shell, and has only four toes which differ from general turtle with five toes as human.

Today, May 23, is the World Turtle Day whose purpose is to bring attention to mankind that globally, more than 50 percent of all 360 turtle and tortoise species are endangered or critically endangered and some are facing extinction, as well as to encourage human action to help turtles and tortoise survive and thrive.

Source: Agency Kampuchea Press