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.
BREAKTHROUGH RESEARCH BY NUS, NPARKS AND WRSCF FINDS NEW EVIDENCE ON POPULATION GROWTH
Singapore, April 10, 2010 – A National University of Singapore (NUS) research team, in collaboration with National Parks Board (NParks) and Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund (WRSCF), has found breakthrough evidence that the population of banded leaf monkeys, believed to be on the verge of extinction since two decades ago, has been growing in Singapore’s forests. This includes the first-ever observations of breeding for the critically-endangered banded leaf monkeys in Singapore and is especially momentous, as 2010 has been designated International Year of Biodiversity.
Research findings point to significant milestones as the banded leaf monkey is one of only three species of non-human primates native to Singapore. Rare, elusive and threatened by habitat loss, the banded leaf monkey is critically endangered. It is part of Singapore’s natural heritage and has the potential of becoming a flagship species for conservation efforts.
This conservation research project was spearheaded by NUS student Andie Ang Hui Fang since July 2008 under the guidance of Associate Professor Rudolf Meier from the NUS Evolutionary Biology Lab, and assisted by Mirza Rifqi Ismail, an NParks research officer. Assistant Professor Michael Gumert from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) also provided invaluable counsel throughout the project.
WRSCF, through the Ah Meng Memorial Conservation Fund (AMMCF) funded the research and provided equipment support. AMMCF, the first recipient of WRSCF, received $500,000 over a five-year period for conducting academic research and studies pertaining to endangered wildlife. The banded leaf monkey project is the first to receive funding from AMMCF.
The goal of this project is to identify the life history parameters of the banded leaf monkey in Singapore, including its population size, feeding ecology, intra- and inter-specific interactions and threats they are faced with in order to support its conservation efforts.
The research has uncovered important evidence that the population of banded leaf monkeys in Singapore has grown to at least 40 individuals, more than the previous estimates of 10 in the 1980s, and 10-15 in the 1990s. The research has collected first findings on the breeding cycle and species of plants they feed on, some of which are rare and locally endangered.
One particularly encouraging finding is that the females are reproducing successfully with at least one breeding cycle every July and infants observed. The project also used non-invasive sampling techniques to obtain genetic information that have helped to clarify the species’ taxonomic status in comparison with populations of banded leaf monkeys found in Southern Malaysia.
The project will continue with the monitoring of population changes and analysing of the botanical composition of the forest in order to examine the sustainability of the habitat for the monkeys. As part of the plan, a population viability assessment will be carried out and important forest fragments will be identified in the hope of connecting the fragments through reforestation. The information gathered will also be used to develop a management plan for conserving one of the last remaining primate species in Singapore.
Professor Peter Ng, Director of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research and the Tropical Marine Science Institute at NUS, said, “As a global university centred in Asia, NUS is well placed to address the myriad of challenges associated with urban city states, sustainable development and conservation. The university has a long history of biodiversity research, its Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research being one of the oldest and most highly regarded natural history museums in the region. Its researchers and affiliated staff from the Department of Biological Sciences are active in modern, often cross-disciplinary, research in many parts of Southeast Asia and they have contributed substantially to our understanding of the region’s biodiversity. In Singapore, NUS researchers work closely with various government agencies to generate baseline information and to ensure that key habitats and species are conserved; and there are also long term plans for monitoring their survival.”
Prof Ng added, “This is the International Year of Biodiversity and NUS is pleased to contribute to global efforts to slow down biodiversity erosion and promote the cause of conservation. The banded leaf monkey project and the suite of conservation projects currently undertaken by NUS researchers and students are important steps toward this long term goal.”
Dr Lena Chan, Deputy Director of National Biodiversity Centre (NParks) said: “The research findings are very exciting. We had thought for a long time that the banded leaf monkey population is on the decline but the findings show the contrary. This shows that with good management our nature reserves do have the potential to reverse population declines for endangered species. It also underscores the importance of safeguarding the reserves and keeping them healthy so that existing native species can continue to thrive.”
“It is most apt that these significant research findings are unveiled this year—the International Year of Biodiversity. Despite Singapore’s highly urbanised environment and land constraints, Singapore remains a safe haven for species that can live in small patches of lowland tropical forest, mangroves, freshwater swamp forest, seagrass beds, mudflats and coral reefs. This has been made possible through the protection of remaining patches of native vegetation and marine ecosystems and this approach has been successful in conserving the remaining biodiversity in a city setting. The banded leaf monkey project is one such effort to protect and conserve our natural heritage,” said Professor Leo Tan, Board of Trustee for WRSCF.
Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-At-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a strong advocate of conservation applauded the research efforts: “The biological diversity of our planet faces as great a crisis as our climate system. The loss of biodiversity poses a threat to our health, wealth and the ecosystems which sustain life. This is why we should all do what we can to prevent the extinction of our plant and animal species. The leaf monkey is a symbol of the challenge we face.”