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.
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.
The TSA/WCS Myanmar Program Turtle Team returned this week from a two month expedition up the Chindwin River in northwestern Myanmar. Access to this region by foreigners has long proven difficult owing to security concerns that have recently lessened. The principal objectives of the expedition were to determine if any populations of Burmese roofed turtles (Batagur trivittata) remain along the lower Chindwin River, and investigate local reports of hitherto unknown populations on tributary creeks of the upper river. Despite significant conservation progress, including a highly successful captive-breeding colony and head-starting program, Batagur trivittata is considered one of the most critically endangered turtles in the world with fewer than 10 reproductive females thought to remain in the wild.
From January 2009 to September 2010, TSA teams worked in Myanmar to develop concepts and designs for new breeding facilities for key chelonian program species. Building plans and budgets for new turtle and tortoise facilities were finalized in September 2010 and construction got underway shortly thereafter. Members of the TSA Board of Directors visited Lawkananda Park in Bagan, Myanmar to inspect one of the newest facilities in February.
Lawkananda is the largest and most successful of the four government-operated star tortoise breeding facilities in Myanmar. The existing facility is being vastly expanded - basically doubling the size - to accommodate their burgeoning population of Burmese star tortoises (Geochelone platynota), a critically endangered endemic species. Due to its success, the sanctuary has been overcrowded and the new construction here will help to alleviate this problem.
The new facility was literally built around an original building, which will now house only juvenile tortoises. The six walled sections will let the adult tortoises roam and graze freely, yet will allow for them to be separated into breeding groups thus assuring the greatest genetic diversity. It has been found that if tortoises are kept in one large herd, a single male will dominate the group and be the only one to mate. At the time of the visit, 20 clutches of eggs had already been laid, with an expectation of over 250 hatchlings emerging from those nests in June.
In addition to adding more space, the new facility offers better security to guard against theft. Over 500 Burmese star tortoises are managed here, 237 of them hatched in the last four years – 113 in 2010! Security is serious issue with star tortoises which sell for a lot of money, so measures must be made to prevent theft. Previously, the tortoises were moved into a locked box at night with someone sleeping on top for security.
A new facility for Asian mountain tortoises (Manouria emys phayrei) was also built adjacent to the star tortoise unit that features two large pools and shade retreats, and should accommodate ten adult tortoises. This will help distribute the large group of 65 tortoises that is currently being held at the Mandalay Zoo and create the third assurance colony for this highly threatened species in Myanmar.
A second facility for Burmese roof turtles (Batagur trivittata) is also now completed. In spring 2011, 50 sub-adult turtles that were hatched in 2007-08 will be moved here to relieve crowding at the Yadanabon Zoo. This facility effectively allows us to divide the captive gene pool of this critically endangered species, thus eliminating the “all eggs in one basket” scenario and avoid the risk of catastrophic loss at one facility – Yadanabon Zoo. This species was previously believed to be extinct until its rediscovery in 2002. Since that time, the captive assurance colony there has grown to over 400 individuals, representing a remarkable conservation success story. The new pond at Lawkananda will help to alleviate overcrowding at this program.
The nesting season for wild Asian river terrapins (Batagur) is winding down, just on the heels of the recently completed Batagur workshop in Singapore and Malaysia in February, and we hope that the training will have an impact on hatching success.
In Myanmar, Kalyar Platt (TSA Turtle Conservation Coordinator) just returned from the upper Chindwin River where she worked with field coordinator Kyaw Moe on the nest protection and egg recovery effort for the critically endangered Burmese roof turtle (Batagur trivittata). They report that in this 2010-2011 nesting season, nesting occurred as early as 9 December 2010 and continued through 26 March 2011. During this period, a total of 179 eggs were recovered for incubation. Approximately six to nine females were thought to have nested along a 48-mile stretch of the river.
The plight of the planet's tortoises and turtles -- creatures that have roamed the Earth for 220 million years -- has never been greater, according to the newly released report "Turtles in Trouble: Top 25+ Endangered Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles ." It shows the world's 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles will become extinct in the next few decades without concerted conservation efforts.
Kalyar Platt, TSA’s new Turtle Conservation Coordinator in Myanmar has hit the ground running since starting in her position last month. Charged with overseeing the continued construction of multiple turtle facilities, she conducted site visits last week to evaluate the progress and make recommendations.
Rick Hudson, Lonnie McCaskill and Kalyar Platt recently returned from a successful trip to Myanmar where they finalized construction plans and budgets with local architects. All total, over $60,000 will be spent over the next three months on new turtle and tortoise facilities at Lawkananda Wildlife Sanctuary in Bagan and the Yadanabon Zoo in Mandalay. The facilities will benefit a number of critically endangered endemic species whose recovery relies on captive breeding and management programs. The funds also provide support for new species initiatives (Asian mountain tortoise, Manouria e. phayrei, and both endemic softshells, Nilssonia formosa and Chitra vandijki) while expanding existing programs for Burmese star tortoises and roofed turtles. This program is managed in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Myanmar Forestry Department.
This report is the first to chronicle the daily activities of a TSA team’s visit to four countries in Asia – Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Philippines - to design turtle facilities, develop conservation programs, and consult on turtle husbandry issues. The team is led by Rick Hudson and includes Lonnie McCaskill and Dave Manser. The team was met in Myanmar by Kalyar Platt and her father Nyunt Thein (a local retired civil engineer) in Yangon, Myanmar. The mission in Myanmar is to begin designing and “costing out” turtle and tortoise facilities that were recommended at the January 2009 workshop.
A high point of the January 2009 workshop was the announcement that a juvenile Batagur trivitatta had been pulled from the adult breeding pond at the Yadanabon Zoo just one week earlier. Apparently hatched in 2008 from an undetected nest, the specimen is in the same size class as a cohort of 2008 wild-hatched juveniles from the Upper Chindwin River. Robust and healthy, the hatchling had obviously fared well in the semi-natural adult breeding pond. The keeper reports that several others have been seen up basking in the adult pond, and a full inspection of the sand nest bank revealed a number of old nests with hatched egg shells. This is remarkable news and helps settle our concerns that something was missing in their captive diet or environment. At the time of this writing 17 new hatchlings from 2009 have recently been recovered. B. trivittata is one of the most threatened species of turtles on earth and was considered close to extinction when it was “rediscovered” in a temple pond in Mandalay in 2002. A dedicated captive breeding and management facility was opened in December 2006 which is already at maximum capacity with 163 young trivittata collected on the Chindwin from 2006 – 2008. The B. trivittata Species Recovery Plan workshop in January 2009 recommended that two new facilities be built to allow captive population growth while suitable release sites are found.