EXTREMELY RARE TURTLE RELEASED INTO THE WILD

SOUTHERN RIVER TERRAPIN, FIXED WITH A SATELLITE TRANSMITTER, IS SET FREE TO BREED IN THE WATERS OF CAMBODIA

WILDLIFE CONSERVATION SOCIETY, CAMBODIAN FISHERIES ADMINISTRATION, AND WILDLIFE RESERVES SINGAPORE WILL MONITOR TURTLE

LESS THAN 200 ADULT INDIVIDUALS REMAIN IN THE WILD

NEW YORK (January 18, 2012) – The Wildlife Conservation Society, in conjunction with the Cambodian Fisheries Administration and Wildlife Reserves Singapore, announced today the successful release of a Southern River terrapin (Batagur affinis) – one of the most endangered turtles on earth – into the Sre Ambel River in Cambodia.

The turtle was released on Monday, January 16th at a ceremony attended by officials, conservationists, and local people.

The female turtle, which weighs approximately 75 pounds (34 kilograms), is fixed with a satellite transmitter that will allow conservationists to track its whereabouts – the first-ever satellite monitoring study for this species.

Captured in the Sre Ambel River by local fishermen in April, 2011, the turtle is one of an estimated 200 adults remaining in the wilds of Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It was voluntarily turned it over to the WCS Cambodia turtle team instead of being sold into the black market trade where it would have been sent to food markets in China.

The population in the Sre Ambel River is estimated at less than ten nesting females. Thus, this individual is extremely important for maintaining genetic diversity of this species that has already suffered drastic population declines.

WCS believes the population has an excellent chance of recovery as the coastal mangrove forests of Southeastern Cambodia are some of the largest and most pristine in Southeast Asia, spanning some 175 square miles (more than 45,000 hectares). These habitats are crucial to numerous aquatic and terrestrial animals and are vital nursery areas for marine fisheries.

Conservationists will monitor the turtle’s movements to see how it utilizes this region. Of particular interest is how the turtle navigates through commercial fishing grounds, as well as areas where it could be threatened by other factors such as habitat destruction by sand mining or conversion of mangrove forests into shrimp farming facilities.

WCS notes that numerous studies on similar long-lived species have shown that as little as a five percent increase in annual adult mortality can cause populations to go extinct.

“By reducing the adult mortality of the Southern River terrapin, even by fractions – as little as ten animals a year per population in this circumstance – we can have immediate and long-term positive impacts on the remaining wild populations of this critically endangered species” said Brian D. Horne of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Heng Sovannara, Deputy Director of Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration’s Conservation Department, is extremely hopeful that the release will enhance efforts to conserve the species. “By identifying areas that are most utilized by the turtles, we can pinpoint our efforts to reduce the turtles being caught as fishery by-catch as well as targeted hunting,” he said.

Dr. Sonja Luz, Deputy Director of Conservation & Research for Wildlife Reserves Singapore, said: “This project will contribute greatly to a much brighter future for this critically endangered terrapin. Hopefully, more public awareness and education opportunities will arise from this and allow us to create better protection tools and a safer environment for these amazing reptiles.”

In 2000, a small population of Southern River Terrapins, Batagur affinis, was found in the Sre Ambel after many years of being considered locally extinct.

The turtle was once considered solely the property of the King of Cambodia, but has been decimated by overhunting over the past two decades.

Following the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot regime, the Cambodian people were left in severe poverty, and with the growing international demand for turtles in China for human consumption, literally thousands of turtles were captured and sent to China for much needed income by the country’s impoverished people.

A turtle’s send off: A Southern river terrapin–one of the most endangered turtles on Earth–makes its way into Cambodia’s Sre Ambel River, in the midst of an admiring crowd. PHOTO CREDIT: Eleanor Briggs/Wildlife Conservation Society
Dr Brian D Horne, Turtle Coordinator for Wildlife Conservation Society, holds up the satellite transmitter against a juvenile Southern river terrapin that was bred at Singapore Zoo PHOTO CREDIT: Wildlife Reserves Singapore

SINGAPORE ZOO LOOKS SET TO EXPAND ITS FAMILY OF RARE GIANT RIVER TERRAPINS

Singapore, 28 December 2010 – Only a handful of these elusive and rare giant river terrapins are known to be left in their native homeland Cambodia – but the Singapore Zoo has successfully bred four of them, with more expected to join the family of eight in the months to come.

Both female terrapins at the zoo were recently found to be gravid with eggs, which are due to be laid anytime now. X-ray examinations on 13 December 2010 revealed that they were carrying over 40 eggs between them. The incubation period for these terrapins ranges from 68 to 112 days.

Giant river terrapins lay their eggs only once a year and the Singapore Zoo has successfully had four hatchlings to date in 2007 and 2009 – two of which are now on display at the Proboscis Monkey pool, while the others are behind the scenes in our turtle hatchery facility. The park is currently home to the two adult females, two adult males and the four hatchlings. Considered an extremely rare species, this breed, also known as Batagur affinis, is native to Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Sumatra.

“It is relatively easy to get the terrapins to mate but the challenge is getting them to nest on an artificial beach. In the past, the terrapins have laid their clutches of eggs in water and we were only able to rescue a few of the eggs. This is why we have had only a small number of hatchlings despite each clutch consisting over 20 eggs,” said Biswajit Guha, Director, Singapore Zoo. “Similarly in the wild, as they migrate to their nesting beach, they can be deterred from laying their eggs by disturbances on or around the beach.”

During the mating season, the males’ head, neck and legs turn black and their irises change, from yellow to pure white, with the colours reverting at the end of the mating season. Females swim far upstream from their usual estuarine habitats, as far as 80km, to nest communally on sand bars and river banks.

Due to their picky breeding requirements and obscure nature, conservationists have tried very hard to rebuild their dwindling populations. In fact, this species was thought to be extinct in Cambodia until some specimens were rediscovered in 2001. They play a key role in the overall ecosystem by aiding in seed dispersal and vegetation management, controlling insect and snail populations, and keeping freshwater systems clean by scavenging on dead animals.

The giant river terrapin is listed as critically endangered in the 2009 IUCN Red List and in CITES Appendix I. This species and other Asian turtles are in grave danger for a number of reasons including the thriving illegal wildlife trade, and their appeal as a delicacy in Asia.

Earlier this year, Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), which operates the Singapore Zoo, Night Safari, Jurong Bird Park and the upcoming River Safari, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to embark on joint studies in the region, including a project to conserve giant river terrapins in Asia. WRS also works closely with local authorities and conservation groups such as Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) to re- home confiscated wild turtles and tortoises or distribute them to partner zoos to be integrated into breeding programmes and educational animal exhibits.

A giant river terrapin nesting on an artificial beach at Singapore Zoo’s Bornean Marsh exhibit
An x-ray showing the terrapin’s eggs