With 28 species (including seven that are endemic, or found nowhere else on Earth) Myanmar is a turtle diversity hotspot and is currently considered “ground zero” for the Asian turtle crisis. Working in conjunction with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the TSA works to implement recovery programs for some highly endangered endemic species – the Burmese roof turtle, Burmese star tortoise and Arakan forest turtle. The TSA is also coordinating a comprehensive and humane response to the thousands of smuggled turtles that are confiscated each year on their way to China. Multiple captive breeding and rescue centers are currently being built or planned that will secure the future for turtles saved from the illegal trade.
The joint Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) / Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) field team recently returned from the Upper Chindwin River in Myanmar where one of the world's most critically endangered turtles is making a remarkable recovery. Feared extinct until "rediscovered" in 2002, when three specimens were found in a pagoda pond, the Burmese roof turtle had not been seen by scientists since the 1930s. Surveys subsequently located a remnant population on the Upper Chindwin River – a major tributary of the Ayeyarwady - that has provided the foundation for this species' recovery. A combination of nest protection, headstarting hatchlings for future release, and captive propagation have pulled this species back from the brink, and over 700 turtles are now thriving in three assurance colonies.
Led by the husband-and-wife team of Steven and Kalyar Platt, the expedition traveled by boat to their forward operating base in Limpha Village. Owing to the overwhelming success of this project and the burgeoning number of turtles in captivity, there is an urgent need to both expand the network assurance colonies and identify habitats where headstarted turtles can soon be released. Expanding the existing facilities in Limpha Village proved straight-forward: ten 250-gallon fiberglass tanks were installed to accommodate the rapidly growing turtles and house the hatchlings expected later this season. Furthermore, a vacant lot was donated by the village council where grow-out ponds for larger turtles will soon be constructed. Finally, a site was identified near the headquarters of Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary where a third captive breeding colony can be established. Plans call for a 1-acre fenced breeding pond to be constructed on the site during the coming months. A core group of breeding animals will be selected from rapidly maturing turtles currently being headstarted. Identifying potential release sites was more problematic owing to fishing pressure, widespread use of sandbanks for seasonal agriculture, and gold mining. Nonetheless the search was successful: suitable release sites were identified in the Chindwin near Limpha and Nam Thalet Chaung, a tributary of the Chindwin where roof turtles historically occurred. As the Platts stated in an email, "this is a beautiful stretch of river with sandbanks for nesting, adjacent deep pools, and abundant fruiting trees for food. Importantly gold has never been found in this river, which has escaped the despoliation that typifies parts of the Chindwin."
While at Limpha the team assisted in collecting roof turtle eggs, which are transferred to a secure beach at the basecamp for incubation. The 2013-14 nesting season yielded a bumper crop of eggs: 150 from eight clutches were collected from four sandbanks. This represents an increase of one clutch over previous years and it seems likely that a additional young female has entered the breeding pool. Although outlook for the roof turtle appears promising, complacency is out of place. With fewer than ten mature females surviving in the wild, the future remains of this species remains precarious. However, without conservation action, the roofed turtle would no doubt have joined ranks of the "disappeared" and faded into biological oblivion.
The Turtle Survival Alliance has been part of a highly successful collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Myanmar to conserve critically endangered and endemic turtles and tortoises since 2009. Our work began as an effort to build turtle facilities to breed and house rare and endangered turtles rescued from government confiscations. After a marked decline in the 1990s and complete extirpation in the 2000s, the TSA (with WCS) began a highly successful breeding program for the Burmese Star Tortoise (Geochelone platynota). There are now more than 4,000 Star Tortoises at several facilities throughout Myanmar and we have begun an effort to reintroduce 150 of these animals back to their native habitat.
The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) work together to conserve three of Myanmar’s critically endangered endemic turtles and tortoises. Since 2009, the TSA has been aggressively pursuing a conservation campaign to conduct field research, coordinate rescue operations for turtles confiscated from the wildlife trade, hold training workshops and oversee multiple construction projects. During that time, we have managed to assemble assurance colonies (groups of endangered animals that are carefully managed in captivity to prevent their extinction) for several species. The Burmese Star Tortoise (Geochelone platynota) is considered to be “functionally extinct” in nature (no wild breeding populations remain), but it has done exceptionally well in captivity. At this point, several thousand animals exist in our assurance colonies in Myanmar, and those colonies continue to grow.
The TSA’s new Turtle Rescue Center (TRC) in Myanmar is a busy place these days after the second recent confiscation of Yellow Tortoises (Indotestudo elongata). A total of 136 tortoises have arrived at the TRC in two shipments in September, turned over by the Myanmar Forestry Department. The tortoises are being treated by Dr. Tint Lwin from the nearby Yadanabon Zoo in Mandalay, and will be held here until appropriate release sites can be identified.
Opened in December 2012 and handed over to the Forestry Department, the TRC is located at the Zeepin Forest Reserve near May Myo, and offers spacious enclosures where turtles and tortoises can be housed safely and humanely while returning to health. Previously, confiscated turtles were held in crowded conditions and released prematurely before habitat assessments could be conducted. With the TRC in place, the future survival and health of confiscated and released chelonians will be vastly improved.
The TRC also has new facilities that support a large assurance colony of Burmese Mountain Tortoises (Manouria emys phayrei) and the cool climate in this hill region is considered perfect for this species. Earlier this year a confiscation included three Arakan Forest Turtles (Heosemys depressa) and four Impressed Tortoises (Manouria impressa), both priority species for assurance colony management. The depressa will soon join the breeding group established at the Arakan Turtle Center in Gwa that we opened earlier this year.
The TRC is a joint initiative of the TSA / WCS Myanmar Turtle Conservation Program and was built with funding support from Pat Koval / WWF Canada, Taipei Forestry Bureau, the Fagus Foundation and the Detroit Zoological Institute.
From Bangladesh to Cambodia, River Terrapins (Genus Batagur) are laying eggs - and lot of them - both in the wild and captivity. Below is a brief summary of River Terrapin nesting activity in programs managed by the TSA and their partners.
Northern River Terrapin or Sunderban Batagur (B. baska): In Bangladesh, at the captive breeding center at Bhawal National Park, the first nest (19 eggs) was laid March 21, followed by two more nests on March 23, consisting of 22 and 14 eggs respectively. Apparently one of the two females dug up another female's nest while laying her own so there was some breakage and egg loss. Project Coordinator Rupali Ghosh was on hand for the nest digging. This is a joint program of Turtle Survival Alliance, Vienna Zoo, Bangladesh Forest Department and our newest partner, IUCN Bangladesh. There are 14.5 adults in this breeding colony (14 males and five females).
In India, at the B. baska breeding center at Sajnekhali, in West Bengal, TSA India Director Shai Singh reports that two females are emerging every night and making trial digs in the newly created nesting enclosure. Last year 50 total hatchlings emerged from these two Centers and we are hoping for a much better hatch rate this year. More good news: the Forest Department procured an additional adult female (22 kg) from a village pond in the northern Sunderbans, bringing the total number at Sajnekhali to 6.5.32 (six males, five females and 32 unknown).
All total there are now 20 males, 10 females and 55 unsexed juveniles of this rare Batagur in captive centers in Indian and Bangladesh and the conservation outlook is looking much brighter that it was just a few years ago when this species was ranked #4 on the list of the Top 25 World's Most Endangered Turtles.
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.
2012 was the busiest and best in the history of the Turtle Survival Alliance. Here are just a few of the accomplishments that we're so grateful for as the year draws to a close:
In Madagascar, the TSA’s grassroots campaign to expose the Radiated Tortoise poaching crisis is beginning to yield positive results throughout the country. Community agreements to strengthen protection for this iconic species have resulted in a dramatic increase in confiscations and arrests in 2012, a sign that the tide may finally be turning. In 2013, the TSA will embark on an ambitious program to build a series of rescue centers throughout the south for rehabilitation and treatment until the tortoises are prepared to return to the wild.
In December, the TSA will dedicate Burma’s first Turtle Rescue Center. Years of planning and fund-raising have culminated in this facility that promises to save countless turtles and tortoises rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. New assurance colony facilities were also built this year for Burmese Mountain Tortoises and Arakan Forest Turtles.
The June hatching of 50 Northern River Terrapins in captive facilities in both Bangladesh and India was a stunning achievement, and made global news. This gives new hope for the survival of this critically endangered turtle that is believed to be very near extinction in the wild.
A recent Save Our Species grant will breathe new life into recovery programs for Asian river terrapins (Genus Batagur) in India, Myanmar, Cambodia and Bangladesh. Captive management is essential to safeguarding these species until efforts to protect and restore nesting habitat are successful, and we are actively building a multi-national model that integrates these strategies.
The TSA produced two films this year to increase awareness of the extensive poaching problems that threaten chelonians in both Madagascar and Bangladesh, and the brutal slaughter that accompanies the illegal wildlife trade.
The TSA launched a program in Colombia this year – our first in South America – that will focus on endemic species, most notably the critically endangered Magdalena River Turtle. By expanding a successful community-based program of nest protection, hatching, headstarting and release, these grassroots efforts will have a greater impact on the species’ recovery in the wild.
In India, the TSA is poised to assume management of the Kukrail Gharial Conservation Center in Lucknow where we will build assurance colonies of most of northern India’s threatened chelonians. The Center will become the home base of operations for TSA India, and provide a facility where the increasing number of confiscated turtles can be rehabilitated.
Launching the Turtle Survival Center in South Carolina in 2013 is guaranteed to prove transformational for the TSA and will propel us into a new era. Building assurance colonies for some of the world’s rarest species – many of which will depend on captive management for their survival – will ensure that we maintain our commitment to zero turtle extinctions.
Membership revenue and online sales account for just roughly 8% of our total revenue. The remainder of our income is provided primarily through grants and donations. For that reason, we are reaching out to those of you who support the TSA to ask for your consideration of a year-end gift to help propel us into an even bigger and better 2013.
This gift does not have the benefits associated with membership and is completely tax deductible to the extent allowed by law. It is a gift that comes from the heart by those who understand the needs of chelonians worldwide and appreciate the work being done year-round by the TSA globally. Click here to donate today.
The Burmese star tortoise (Geochelone platynota) is a Critically Endangered species endemic to the dry zone of central Myanmar. Star tortoises have long been harvested for food by local people, but high demand, first from food and traditional medicine markets in southern China, and later by pet markets in China, Japan, and Thailand led to precipitous population declines during the late 1990s, and the species is now thought to be “ecologically” extinct in the wild. Recognizing that future conservation efforts hinged on developing successful captive breeding programs to supply tortoises for eventual reintroduction, assurance colonies of Burmese star tortoises were established at several facilities in Myanmar (Shwe Settaw, Minzontaung, and Lawkanandar Wildlife Sanctuaries, and Yadanabon Zoological Gardens in Mandalay). To date, these programs have enjoyed considerable success and large numbers of hatchlings are being produced each year. Consequently, the species is now at little risk of biological extinction. Considerable interest has been expressed in reintroducing tortoises into suitably protected sites, and a recent survey identified two wildlife sanctuaries (Shwe Settaw and Minzontaung wildlife sanctuaries) where such projects were deemed feasible.
As a prelude to reintroduction, a national Burmese star tortoise workshop was conducted at Lawkanandar Wildlife Sanctuary (LWS) from 17 to 21 September 2012 with the following objectives:
Sitting astride the southern border of China, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) has been on the frontlines of the battle to save Asia's imperiled chelonian fauna ever since the global conservation community first became aware of the Asian Turtle Crisis in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, resources for conservation are scarce in this impoverished nation, and as a consequence poachers and illegal wildlife traffickers have run rampant, decimating turtle populations throughout the country.
Nonetheless, the Myanmar Forest Department takes threats to its biodiversity seriously, and is making a determined effort to stem the hemorrhage of turtles from within its borders. Enforcement efforts, however are hampered by a lack of turtle identification skills among customs officers, police, and Forest Department personnel manning border checkpoints. To help address this deficiency, the Forest Department requested that the Turtle Survival Alliance/Wildlife Conservation Society's Myanmar Program prepare a simple, easy-to-use guidebook on the tortoises and freshwater turtles of Myanmar.
The Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund (DWCF) recently awarded the TSA a $24,800 grant to support a reintroduction program for Burmese star tortoises (Geochelone platynota) in Myanmar. This project is the first step in a larger project with the ultimate goal of reintroducing and establishing a breeding population of star tortoises at a wildlife sanctuary. The general objectives are to inform local communities of our reintroduction plans, reinforce local religious beliefs that confer protection to tortoises, and enlist the support of local communities. Funds are also available for building pre-release enclosures to hold the tortoises for up to a year prior to their “soft release”, a technique that we believe will encourage the tortoises to remain near the release site (site fidelity) in the protected sanctuary.