WILDLIFE RESERVES SINGAPORE HOSTS REGIONAL WORKSHOP ON TURTLE CONSERVATION

PARTICIPANTS TO OUTLINE 10-YEAR ROADMAP TO SAVE THE EARTH’S OLDEST LIVING REPTILE

Singapore, 22 February 2011 – Turtles are the oldest reptiles left on Earth, with the earliest species found almost 300 million years ago, but many species alive today may not live to see the next century. That is why conservation groups across the world are meeting here this week to discuss pressing plans to ensure their survival in the wild.

Hosted by Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), the four-day workshop which kicked off at the Singapore Zoo yesterday aims to set the agenda for Asian turtle conservation in the next decade. It brings together delegates throughout Asia, Europe, Australia and the United States, including over 70 conservationists from 16 Asian countries, such as Pakistan, Philippines, China, and East Timor, who work closely with endangered freshwater turtles.

The event, themed ‘The Conservation of Asian Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles – Setting Priorities for the Next Ten Years’ is co-organised by Wildlife Reserves Singapore and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and is supported by San Diego Zoo Global, the Turtle Survival Alliance and the IUCN Tortoise & Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group and Kadoorie Farm & Botanical Garden in Hong Kong.

The participation of some 39 participants has been sponsored by collaborating organisations and Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund (WRSCF), an independent charity set up by WRS in 2009 with the primary purpose of conserving endangered native wildlife.

The last meeting was held 10 years ago in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and this year’s agenda will include discussions to critically assess what has worked – and what has not – in protecting chelonian populations and preventing extinction of the species.

Human encroachment, combined with over-hunting and the illegal wildlife trade, are decimating the world’s population of turtles at a pace faster than they can reproduce. Prized highly for their meat and medicinal value, particularly in Southeast Asia and China, nearly more than half of the species of tortoises and turtles in the region are now on the verge of extinction.

Dr. Elizabeth Bennett, Vice President of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Species Program said: “Turtles are at a conservation crossroads. Some species are truly at the brink of extinction with just a few individuals remaining. We are hopeful that the results of this workshop will help bring turtles onto the road to recovery.”

Some workshop highlights include country reports on the current status of turtle populations in different countries, an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red Listing session on individual turtle species and Trade Status Reports. An open forum on conservation priorities will be held at the end of the workshop for participants to discuss interesting ‘what if’ scenarios.

Following this event is another workshop on the conservation of large river turtles (genus Batagur) from 25 February to 2 March in Singapore and Malaysia, which will address the threats to the survival of these species. It will comprise regional presentations, round table discussions, and field trips to share ‘best practices’ in the collection of pertinent life history data, and methods for reducing adult mortality.

WRS, which operates award-winning parks Night Safari, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Zoo and the upcoming river-themed attraction, River Safari, has consistently supported the conservation of turtles through various partnerships with international wildlife institutions.

On the local front, it partners with national agencies such as Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore and National Parks Board to rescue and rehabilitate turtles and tortoises. Last year, the Singapore Zoo worked with the Turtle Survival Alliance to relocate 36 endangered Indian star tortoises, which were confiscated here, to Fort Worth Zoo in Texas.

WRS also runs a successful captive breeding programme for critically endangered turtle species like the southern river terrapin, which has produced excellent results. Recently on 10 February, a southern river terrapin had hatched from its egg after a two-month incubation period. At least 12 more Batagur hatchlings are expected to emerge from their eggs in the next two to four weeks.

Visitors will get a chance to see some 17 species of tortoises and freshwater turtles from around the world at WRS’ fourth park, the River Safari. Due to open in the second half of 2012, the collection will include the critically endangered Southeast Asian narrow headed turtle, one of the largest freshwater turtles that can grow over 1.1m in length and 100kg in weight, as well as the big headed turtle from China. These turtles are known for their impressive climbing abilities, a trait that is unique amongst the species, which enables them to cross over rocky stream bottoms and against fast current.

Batagur hatchling at Singapore Zoo

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

WILDLIFE RESERVES SINGAPORE SENDS 36 EXOTIC TORTOISES TO FORT WORTH ZOO IN TIE-UP WITH US CONSERVATION GROUP

Singapore, 1 Jul 2010Wildlife Reserves Singapore, parent company of award-winning attractions Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari, Singapore Zoo and the upcoming River Safari, recently sent 36 Indian star tortoises to Fort Worth Zoo in Texas, in a first-time partnership with the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA).

TSA, a US-based conservation group, supports and manages recovery programmes for endangered turtles and tortoises around the world. Mostly donations from the public or confiscations from the police and Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore, some of these tortoises have been kept at the Singapore Zoo for nearly two years, as it is illegal to keep Indian star tortoises as pets in Singapore.

This first shipment of Indian star tortoises marks the start of a long-term exchange between WRS and TSA to re-home exotic and endangered turtles and tortoises. The tortoises, which have arrived in Texas, will be distributed to TSA partner zoos across the United States, such as the Fort Worth Zoo, to be integrated in breeding programmes and educational animal exhibits.

Native to India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the Indian star tortoise is one of the most prized breeds in the international exotic pet trade because of its beautifully coloured patterned shell. It fetches a high profit margin and is very popular in overseas markets such as the United States and other European countries. One tortoise can cost as little as $5 in India, over $100 in Singapore, and as much as $1,000 in the United States.

Raising these animals in captivity is challenging and usually leads to the demise of these precious tortoises as they are picky eaters.

“Such exotic animals should not be kept as pets and their well-being should be left in the care of experts,” said Ms Fanny Lai, WRS’ Group CEO. “WRS continues to work with other institutions to ensure confiscated or donated animals are well-placed in reputable wildlife institutions, repatriated or where possible, rehabilitated and released into the wild.”

A box of Indian Star Tortoises en route to Fort Worth Zoo from Singapore. Their black shells with striking yellow ridges make them popular exotic pets.
Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) assistant curator, Bernard Santhosh, scans one of the tortoises to ensure it’s the correct one slated for this shipment. All WRS animals are microchipped for easy identification across borders.
Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) assistant curator Bernard Santhosh gently places the tortoises into compartmentalised boxes to ensure their safe and comfortable journey to the United States. These tortoises can grow to as long as ten inches. One of its unique traits is the shape of its shell which naturally assists the tortoise to return to a stable stance after it has been turned over.